New department aims to help residents ‘make it in Michigan’

It’s been two months since Michigan’s new Department of Lifelong Education, Advancement and Potential went online. The department’s objective is to improve educational outcomes from preschool through college so that anyone can “make it in Michigan,” the governor’s office said at its launch.

Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer established the department, known by its acronym, MiLEAP, by executive order in July. It got to work Dec. 1, pulling more than 300 staff members from the state departments of Education, Treasury, Licensing and Regulatory Affairs, and Labor and Economic Opportunity.

MiLEAP acting director Michelle Richard explains that the new department helps fill in gaps in the current education system.

“The governor frequently talks about the fact that we know we have to start education earlier than kindergarten and we have to continue education after 12th grade,” Richard told the Michigan Independent. “And we’ve said that as a state for a very long time. Many families have made investments like that for a very long time. But we haven’t had really intentional infrastructure that has supported that for kids, families and for students.”

Richard said it’s now MiLEAP’s job to help put that infrastructure together and figure out how to “support those opportunities so that every single family and every single student in the state has access to affordable options, and that the pathway we’re working to create for students ends in a good-paying job that lets them build their life right here in Michigan.”

A former elementary school teacher and later an education adviser to Whitmer, Richard said MiLEAP is an opportunity to create real, tangible improvements to the quality of the education experience for Michigan families.

“I really appreciate that the governor leads as a parent and we in this department lead as parents and community members,” Richard said.

Addressing the younger end of the educational spectrum, MiLEAP is focused on realizing Whitmer’s goal of providing access to prekindergarten for all families in the state free of charge. In her Jan. 24 State of the State address, the governor called for universal free pre-K for all 4-year-olds in Michigan to be included in the next state budget.

Whitmer’s administration says children who attend pre-K have better educational outcomes and higher graduation rates and earn higher wages once they join the workforce.

Currently, about 40% of 4-year-olds in Michigan don’t attend pre-K, with cost being a major factor, the administration says. The universal pre-K plan would increase the number of children who can attend and save families as much as $10,000 per year.

“The team at MiLEAP is charged with putting together a plan and making sure that in every single community across the state we can make that a reality,” Richard said.

At the older end of the educational spectrum, MiLEAP is administering the state’s investments in college financial aid and helping Michiganders see the benefits of higher education in conjunction with Whitmer’s plan for tuition-free community college to be made available for every high school graduate in Michigan.

“We know that the best-paying jobs in the economy require education after high school,” Richard said, “and in some cases, those jobs require a skill certificate, in some cases they require an associate’s degree, but in a lot of cases they require a bachelor’s degree or higher.”

The governor pushed for two years of free community college in her State of the State address. The plan, her administration says, will save students an average of $4,000 per year while they earn an associate’s degree or skills certificate. It will also help to achieve MiLEAP’s “Sixty by 30” goal of  60% of working-age adults having earned a post-high school degree by 2030.

Richard said many families across the state see a skills certificate or a college degree as out of reach. MiLEAP’s goal is to help Michiganders see themselves in those opportunities.

“You shouldn’t have to sit at your kitchen table and wonder if you can afford it,” Richard said. “You know that kindergarten is an option for your baby because you can put them on the bus and they can go to school. We want that same kind of ease for when students are deciding whether college is the next step for them, that they know that there’s that low-cost, no-cost option that’s available to them.”