MACKINAC ISLAND, Mich. -- Inadequate preschooling is causing Michigan students to fall behind early, making it harder to develop the talented workforce needed for the state to be competitive, business leaders said Wednesday.

A coalition of companies and organizations urged government policymakers to erase a shortage of preschooling for underprivileged children, saying about one-third of the state's pupils leave kindergarten ill-prepared to begin first grade.

Roughly 70 percent of Michigan's fourth-grade students are not proficient readers, meaning those deprived of early education are not catching up, the Children's Leadership Council of Michigan said.

Michigan has room for only about half of 4-year-olds eligible for publicly funded preschool. About 38,000 are left out each year, said Debbie Dingell, a leader of the council.

"It's unacceptable in this state. We can't allow that to happen," Dingell said during a news conference at the Detroit Regional Chamber's annual policy conference on Mackinac Island. "This is an investment that Michigan has to make."

More than 100 business leaders from around the state have endorsed the council's plan to improve early childhood education, she said.

It calls for pumping $130 million into preschool for at-risk 4-year-olds on top of the $100 already being spent, an increase that would accommodate all eligible children.

Instead of recommending a specific way to raise the money during financially strapped times, the council offered several alternatives. Among them: earmarking future tax revenue growth for preschool and early childhood education; making other programs more efficient and spending the money saved on preschool; and committing 1 percent of K-12 statewide funding to expanding preschool and early childhood instruction.

Another possibility would be allowing local property tax increases for the purpose, the group said.

The council said a second urgent priority should be stepping up services to ensure healthy growth during children's first three years, a period critical to brain development.

In addition to providing a more talented pool of workers, spending more on early education could save taxpayer money in the long run by reducing the need for remedial instruction and other social spending, said Rob Fowler, president of the Small Business Association of Michigan.

"Early strategic investment in childhood education bears fruit all the way down the line," Fowler said.

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