Monthly Archives May 2013

A Huge Win for Michigan’s Preschoolers

Earlier this week, the Legislature approved an historic expansion of the Great Start Readiness Program (GSRP) – the state’s preschool program for four-year-olds at-risk of being underprepared for kindergarten.  This $65 million increase – a 60 percent expansion of the program – will provide an additional 16,000 half-day slots, which is much needed considering the 29,000 eligible but unenrolled four-year-olds currently living in Michigan.

This year’s success was the result of the collective impact of many individuals and organizations who have entered into the early childhood education advocacy arena over the past several decades.

First off, this expansion wouldn’t have been possible without the leadership of Michigan’s elected officials.  Broad support for preschool across both chambers, both parties, and the Governor’s office was expressed early on in the budget process, with some elected officials championing early childhood issues since they first took office well before the fiscal year 2014 budget process began.  These important leaders played critical roles in ensuring that the final budget bill included this significant expansion.

Of course, none of this would have been possible without the leadership of the Center for Michigan – to not only uncover the unmet need of GSRP across the state through Bridge Magazine’s excellent journalism but to also provide support to the Children’s Leadership Council of Michigan (CLCM).  The CLCM, co-chaired by Doug Luciani of the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce and Michigan’s Children’s own board member Debbie Dingell of d2 Strategies, corralled the business community in support of high quality early learning opportunities and did an effective job of communicating the research and the business argument for expanding access to GSRP.

Another significant player in this year’s efforts was the High Scope Educational Research Foundation, who has been evaluating GSRP since 1995.  Their most recent evaluation was released in March of 2012 and demonstrated the long-term benefits of young children participating in GSRP including fewer students being retained in K-12 and more students graduating on time from high school – both which save taxpayer dollars.  And of course, evaluation efforts like these have helped economists like Michigan’s own Tim Bartik and others across the country make the case for the high return on investment that quality early learning programs provide.

Finally, expansion of early childhood programming has been on the forefront of early childhood advocates’, parents’, and providers’ agendas for the past several decades.  This is evidenced by GSRP’s inception in fiscal year 1986 and its fairly steady growth since then.  At the same time, advocates have been working tirelessly to build an early childhood system that includes high quality child care, evidence-based home visiting, targeted early intervention services, and other family supports to ensure that all Michigan children get a great start in life.  While there is still much work to be done to continue to build a comprehensive early childhood system, we must take a moment to applaud our successes and thank those who have made it possible for more of Michigan’s most challenged four-year-olds to access a high quality preschool program.  Thank you from Michigan’s Children.

-Mina Hong

Voice for Children, Youth and Families: Then, Now and Into the Future

As a lot of you know, Michigan’s Children has been around since 1993 – 20 years of work to move public policy in the best interest of children from cradle to career and their families.  Lots of victories over that time, including pioneering youth voice and youth engagement in public policy and working tirelessly for two decades to help build the collaborative early childhood successes we see today.  Unfortunately, we’ve seen a few setbacks as well including the organizational challenges over the past year that led us to assess our purpose, unique value and support from partners and funders.

Capacity for the assessment has been supported by funders, and the heavy lifting has been done through the expert guidance of some of the best thinkers around the state. During several months of research, analysis and discussion, we found that Michigan’s Children is unique and needed within Michigan’s policy advocacy landscape. So, instead of packing up, we are reorganizing and refocusing our work so that we are giving our supporters the best investment we can in policy advocacy activities.

Things are changing though.  We are, in fact, packing up but only to move our offices to shared space with Michigan Association of United Ways, our long-term and valued state-level advocacy partner – continuing to strengthen all of our work. And, of course, we’ll continue to build and strengthen partnerships with other great advocacy work going on in our state.

So, what’s next?  As you know, there is no shortage of urgent policy work in Michigan.  Our staff is small but smart, and we have continued to advocate for better public policy for kids and families through this time of reflection and restructuring.  Our mission to be a trusted, independent voice working to reduce equity gaps in child outcomes from cradle to career through policy change remains as consistent as our commitment to being an independent voice for children present in policy decision-making.

We know that this is no time for Michigan’s Children to slow down or to turn our backs on the issues facing our state’s children, youth and families – the challenges are still too great.

I have been honored to help shepherd the organization through the last year, and will be intimately involved as we move into our next 20 years.  As we all know, the well-being of our children, youth and families is critical to the well-being of Michigan.  I look forward to working with you!

-Michele Corey

Our Work Doesn’t Stop After Star Power

Earlier this week, nearly 2,000 adults and children gathered in the Capitol lawn in Lansing to promote early childhood education.  There were just as many little ones as there were adults engaging in the festivities –getting their faces painted, doing the chicken dance, and meeting with legislators.  The hundreds of red t-shirts on adults and kids alike was a great visual reminder to legislators who stopped by the event or just walked in and out of the Capitol that lots of people care about early childhood issues in Michigan.  It was a great display of the momentum behind early childhood that has been building in this state over the past several decades.  And clearly, policymakers are getting the message with an historic increase in funding for the Great Start Readiness Preschool Program anticipated in the 2013-2014 fiscal year.

Star Power represented different steps of our collective advocacy strategy to strengthen public policies on behalf of Michigan’s youngest residents.  For folks who were entering into the advocacy arena for the first time, it’s a perfect first step.  Being with fellow parents, children, providers, and early childhood advocates takes a bit of the pressure off from meeting legislators for the first time.  And the first and best step towards becoming a strong advocate is to build a relationship with those who represent you.

For some attendees, it provided a chance to reconnect with legislators who they already had long-standing relationships with.  Continuing to maintain that strong relationship is just as important as building it in the first place.  And for those who already had long-standing relationships with legislators, they used the opportunity to get insight on what’s at play in current budget negotiations and strategies to use with key legislators.

There are many more steps to be taken.  While the informal nature of Star Power made it challenging for folks to make those difficult asks to key decision-makers, it provided a great opportunity to connect with legislators and to engage in policy advocacy.  However, the work doesn’t stop after Star Power.  While the budget process feels like a short several months, budget-making and policy advocacy happens year-round (learn more about this in our Budget Basics fact sheet on the budget process.) Building a relationship with the elected officials who represent you and educating them on the issues that matter to you, your children, and your community by inviting them to visit local programs in their district; having children and families benefiting from those programs speak to legislators in their districts (like at legislators’ coffee hours); continuing to reinforce the importance of these programs, policies, and public funding all year long; and thanking them for their successes are also part of the advocacy process.  Our jobs don’t stop when we get back on the bus to head home after Star Power.

If you participated in Star Power, I thank you for your participation.  And, I hope that you’ll follow-up with your legislators about the importance of specific budget issues that still need to be decided.  Learn more about what’s still at play in the fiscal year 2014 budget in our latest Budget Basics publication.

-Mina Hong

Is Equity Still on the Table?

At the beginning of the current budget process, we laid out some of our expectations for the Governor and Legislators to help guide their deliberations.  We’ve shared those expectations through the last four months of conversation.  Now, here we are at the homestretch and the part of the budget process that is often most frustrating.

We adjust our understanding of how much money we have to spend.  Revenue estimating happened this week, and the news is good – nearly ½ a billion dollars more in the state’s coffers are predicted for the state’s fiscal year beginning this October.

Some priorities have already been decided – agreed on by members of the Michigan House and Senate.  The Governor is the only remaining player for those decisions, since he is still able to cut anything from the budget that he’d like at this point (though he can’t ADD anything that he’d like), with very little chance of enough Legislators banning together (they need a full 2/3 of the group) to over-ride his veto.

Some of the decisions already made will negatively impact equity.  There was again no acknowledgement of the need for stronger programs that support the very poorest families and children in our state to offset a decade of cuts and a decade of economic difficulty.  Specifically, we’ve retained the devastating cut to the state Earned Income Tax Credit; and despite evidence of their current inadequacy to serve everyone who needs them at a level that assists, failed to increase the state’s subsidy or quality in the child care program and removed further infrastructure from the Family Independence Program.

A small (VERY small) group of people get to hash out the state’s remaining priorities – those where there is still some disagreement about funding levels and program content.  There is quite a bit left to decide that impacts equity, including:

  1. Health promotion programs.  There is some disagreement about expanding support for several initiatives designed to prevent further problems and costs for the state’s children, youth and families, including:  infant mortality reduction, lead abatement programs, the Healthy Kids Dental Program, Mental Health Innovations, and many public health programs designed to improve health outcomes through the Health and Wellness Initiative.
  2. Pre-school expansion.  The good news=everybody wants to expand the Great Start Readiness Program – Michigan’s 4 year-old preschool program.  The devil is in the details, and several of those details have yet to be worked out.  Do we change the group who is eligible to this program in ways that serve the most challenged families?  Do we increase the amount that we pay providers for the program or require a higher level of quality so that they can continue to build the best classrooms for young children?
  3. Support for the most struggling learners.  With so much discussion about education reform, there is little in this budget to support proven strategies promoting educational equity.  But, there are a few.  The Senate included a very small pilot program serving foster kids over age 18 in the city of Detroit to help them reach a high school credential; and they included what they call a “placeholder” – no $$, but ensuring some conversation about possible support to build and strengthen school-community partnerships, a proven equity strategy.  The Governor and the House maintained some funding and language around what they term “best practice grants” for schools.  Some of these practices can improve the outcomes for the most challenged young people – dual enrollment and online or blended learning opportunities, and expanded physical and health education.  Districts around the state should be encouraged (and funded) to utilize them to build equity in their outcomes.

In a bit of a category by itself is health access expansion.  The Governor’s suggestion that we take advantage of new federal resources to expand Medicaid coverage to extremely poor adults, including parents and young people who are or will soon be parents, has not been supported by the Legislature so far.   There are a couple of avenues still open for that conversation, but it is definitely not a sure thing at this point.

It is still important to talk to your legislators and have them talk to their colleagues about these and other critical issues.  Improved revenue projections should translate into investment decisions that improve equity in our state.  And there is no time like the present to talk with them about the priorities that you expect for the next budget year.  No rest for the advocate!

Check out our latest Budget Basics publication on how the different budget proposals will impact equity.

-Michele Corey

Secretary Duncan, You Missed An Awesome Opportunity

Monday afternoon, early childhood advocates and fans filled a room at the Perry Preschool in Ypsilanti to hear from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan discuss President Obama’s Early Learning Proposal, Governor Rick Snyder on his efforts to expand preschool, and other experts on the value of early childhood education.  While Washtenaw County residents made-up a significant portion of the folks in the room, early childhood advocates from Detroit, Lansing and other communities also were in attendance to learn more about what Secretary Duncan had to say about the President’s historic effort to expand early learning opportunities across the prenatal through age five spectrum.

While the excitement around preschool is much deserved and grounded in solid research, I can’t help but feel that Secretary Duncan missed an opportunity to promote the comprehensive nature of the President’s Early Learning Plan.  For starters, the President’s plan doesn’t focus purely on four-year-old preschool, but rather encompasses the entire early learning experiences that are needed prenatally through age five.  Specifically, Obama’s plan calls for investments to expand evidence-based voluntary home visiting programs that support pregnant women and families with infants and toddlers, investments in high quality Early Head Start – Child Care partnerships that serve young children from birth through age three, high quality preschool for four-year-olds, and full-day kindergarten for five-year-olds.  This is what a comprehensive early learning plan looks like.  Unfortunately, much of the conversation yesterday revolved around preschool with only one mention to home visiting.

When Secretary Duncan was sitting next to Governor Snyder, I wish he had emphasized these other critical components to the early learning plan.  Preschool is a critical component and one that we know helps reduce disparities in school readiness.  We also know that for the children and families who are struggling the most in Michigan, more comprehensive services beginning prenatally that connect to a high quality preschool program ensures that more children will be better prepared for kindergarten.

And while we’re at it, there was quite a bit of discussion about universal preschool, with talk by Washtenaw residents who volunteered to pilot a universal preschool model in their county.  I would argue that this is antithetical to the early childhood system, which was created to serve the most challenged children and families.  In fact, all of the research supporting the return on investment for high quality early learning experiences is based on programs that serve very low-income children whose families often faced multiple challenges.  Rather than jumping to four-year-old preschool for all children, Michigan should first build a comprehensive early childhood system similar to the President’s proposal so that more kids are ready to succeed at kindergarten and beyond.  In Michigan, we need to expand access to voluntary home visiting and other services prenatally through age three, bolster our child care system (which is one of the worst in the nation), at the same time that we expand access to preschool for low-income children.   This is how we prevent the school readiness gap, prevent the achievement gap that we see in K-12, and ensure that we get the greatest return on our taxpayers’ investment – not by providing preschool for all children.

As Secretary Duncan continues to travel the country to promote Obama’s Early Learning Proposal, I would urge him not to shy away from discussing the details of the President’s plan.  He had a great opportunity this week in a room full of early childhood advocates who understand that the early childhood system doesn’t begin with preschool – he can help us move the public discourse towards a more comprehensive early childhood system.

-Mina Hong

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