Historic Vote for Young Children Heads to the Ballot in Kent County, Michigan

CSSP welcomes guest blogger, Amy Turner-Thole of First Steps Kent, who shares the story behind a great victory for young children in Kent County, a community of more than 600,000 people in western Michigan, which includes Grand Rapids. First Steps Kent, a longstanding member of the Early Childhood Learning and Innovation Network for Communities (EC-LINC) supported by CSSP, has been working tirelessly to secure sustainable financing for early childhood services in the county. We congratulate First Steps Kent and its partners on reaching a key milestone in this effort! 

“This is not only the right thing to do, but it is also the smart thing to do.” 

That has been a guiding mantra for the coalition of community leaders working for the last two decades to increase investment in our youngest children. It was a message that resonated with the Kent County Board of Commissioners as its members voted June 28 to put an early childhood millage, or property tax levy, on the county-wide ballot in November.

 “We are grateful that our county commissioners see the value in providing high-quality early childhood services so that kids are healthy and ready to succeed in school,” said Annemarie Valdez, president/CEO of First Steps Kent, the nonprofit organization that proposed the early childhood millage. “We believe voters in our community will do the same.”

If approved by Kent County voters, the millage will generate approximately $5.5 million a year for six years to pay for services including home visiting, play and learn groups, developmental screenings, and navigation to help families access those resources. Funding will be distributed to community-based organizations to increase the number of children and families they serve. A portion of the funds will be used to develop a community-wide data system to measure impact. 

While First Steps Kent led the efforts to get the issue on the ballot, the public campaign will be handed over to Yes Ready by 5. With a “yes” vote in November, Kent County would become the first county in Michigan with a dedicated property millage for early childhood services. 

Getting to this point has been a long journey. 

In the early 1990’s, there was a growing understanding among child advocates that improving outcomes and eliminating longstanding disparities would require starting earlier—with babies and toddlers. What followed was a process of research, education, and consensus-building. Part of that was to bring together a powerful cadre of “unusual suspects” to champion the cause. 

“We reached out to influential business and community leaders who cared about kids and understood that we had to do things differently to get different results,” explained Kate Pew Wolters, co-chair of First Steps Kent and chair of the Steelcase Foundation. “We were intentionally bipartisan, recognizing that we needed people from diverse perspectives if we were really going to advance the community conversation.”   

That conversation focused on both the moral imperative and the business case, with a heavy emphasis on the return on investment associated with high-quality early childhood programs. There have been extensive public will-building efforts and education campaigns to raise awareness of the importance of early childhood. The community has seen significant gains over the last two decades, thanks to both public and private investments. However, the current capacity still falls far short of the need.             

First Steps Kent conducted an analysis in 2017, to better understand how many children and families are served currently, how many more need support, and what it would cost to provide those services. It uncovered big gaps including the fact that more than half of children eligible for home visiting are not receiving the service. Only 15 percent of economically disadvantaged three-year-olds are enrolled in preschool. Fewer than one-third of young children get routine developmental screenings.             

A successful millage will not fill all those gaps. What it will do is provide sustainable funding for some of the most vital early childhood services that will improve outcomes for children and families and achieve results that can influence public policy. It will help attract additional private funders as they recognize Kent County as a place where their collective investments can make a significant impact. It will demonstrate our community’s commitment to the principle that every child deserves to be healthy and ready to learn, and the understanding that our future prosperity depends on it.

Amy Turner-Thole is a communications consultant who has worked with First Steps Kent for the last 10 years.