The Federal Role In Education Policy, ESEA Update
July 22, 2015 – We have heard a lot about the fact that for the first time since 2001, both chambers in Congress have passed their recommendations to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), currently known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB.) This is monumental, particularly since the kids who were starting kindergarten in 2001 are now 19- and 20-year olds, some still making their way through high school and others in post-secondary or career. 2001 was a long time ago in education years, and much has changed in homes and communities that should be reflected in schools and education policy.
What hasn’t changed is the primary role of the federal government in education. Because K-12 and post-secondary education are primarily resourced by states and localities, the federal role and investment emerged for one reason only: to ensure that everybody has equitable access to educational opportunity. That access takes several important forms:
Assistance for students, families, schools and communities facing the most challenges. We have to best support students who need special help and accommodation for learning, of which many of their needs are primarily addressed within the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Beyond that, research has shown for decades that the most under-resourced students tend to go to the most under-resourced schools. Many students face multiple personal, family and community challenges that begin early, go beyond the school walls and impact education outcomes. However, schools alone cannot and should not be responsible for addressing those challenges but can be a great access point for critical services. Current cradle to career investments are not enough, and much more can and should be done to support evidenced programming.
Accountability requirements for our education investment. We know who we are supposed to be helping with additional assistance, so it is essential to understand how different populations of students are doing to evaluate how well we are doing it. This has been and will continue to be done by looking at student outcomes (test scores, graduation rates) and the reporting of those outcomes specifically for targeted population groups by race, income and other individual or family circumstances like disability, homelessness, participation in the foster care system, English Language Learners, etc. This is essential to continue to understand our successes and challenges with reducing achievement gaps.
Incentives for innovation. We don’t always have all of the answers, and the times do change, so it is always important to encourage best practice and shifts in teaching and learning based on the specific needs of certain populations, or emerging research and practice. Recent federal efforts like Race to the Top, Investment in Innovation and Early Learning Challenge grants are examples of how federal investment can help states and districts make big, innovative changes in their education systems.
There are two different bills on the table to reauthorize the ESEA — the Senate Every Child Achieves Act (S. 1177) and the House Student Success Act (H.R. 5) . Michigan’s Children favors the Senate version, which keeps intact many essential programs supporting evidenced practice to best support struggling students. This includes supports like the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, investments long before kindergarten and connections for students and their families to resources and services beyond the traditional K-12 system to support their learning and development. The House version intentionally combines many critical programs into block grants to the states. This approach would limit the ability of the federal funding to target proven equity-building strategies. I won’t belabor the details here, but you can find them all in all of the media coverage, from many of our advocacy partners and from the Congressional Research Office in great detail here.
Concerned with how all of this plays out? We are too. The good news is that this conversation is far from over, and we all have an opportunity this summer to get involved. A conference committee made up of legislators from both parties and chambers will be working into the fall to come to a resolution of the differences, and there is still time to influence them. Members of the U.S. House and Senate will be home in their districts next month. Use that time to let them know what you see challenging or helping with the success of students and families in your community. Help your elected leaders think about how best to address educational needs to build career and college ready kids in 2015 and beyond. If you run a summer program, invite them to join you to talk directly with young people, parents and staff.
While it is unlikely that members of our Michigan delegation will be sitting on the conference committee, it is critical that you encourage your members to talk with their conferee colleagues. And if you want help, Michigan’s Children is here to support your efforts. Now is the time.
– Michele Corey
June 30, 2015 – This month, the Legislature and Governor approved the state’s fiscal year 2016 budget, which goes into effect on October 1, 2015. Overall, it was a great budget for kids. But – and here’s a big but – if you take into the very important factor that children and youth are part of a family unit, the budget was only mediocre.
The big winners in the budget was in education. The focus on improving third grade literacy led to a $31 million state investment towards those efforts that included a significant investment towards additional learning time for kindergarten through third graders struggling to read, a variety of teacher supports, and some resource for our youngest learners through parent coaching and support. The focus also included some very important quality improvements to Michigan’s child care subsidy program to make high quality child care more accessible for the state’s lowest-income working families.
On the other end of the education spectrum, in addition to the first significant expansion in many years to support At-Risk learners, Michigan also put significant resource to expand career and technical education as well as an increase for adult education – both important dropout prevention and recovery strategies for young people to re-engage in their educations and obtain a high school credential and a path towards college or a career. And, policymakers acknowledged the need for more time in high school for some young people facing extraordinary challenges by allowing districts to fund their education beyond age 20.
While these investments are significant wins for Michigan children and youth, we’ve continued to provide little support to families who face the most challenges in our state – often the same families whose children will benefit from these education investments. The state budget made no efforts to reverse the recent harmful changes to FIP, FAP, and the EITC – Michigan’s cash assistance and nutrition assistance programs and the Earned Income Tax Credit. Instead, lawmakers are now looking to completely eliminate the state’s EITC to fix our roads. Is this really a wise choice?
Similarly, Michigan’s child abuse and neglect rates continue to rise, but support for important family preservation programs have been flat funded with federal funding alone. If we want to reverse this unacceptable trend of child maltreatment, Michigan must get serious about preventing abuse and neglect and supporting families with the most significant challenges so they can provide safe and stable homes. This starts with putting in some state resource to bolster the federal investment. In addition, educational and other life outcomes for young people involved in the CPS and foster care systems continue to fall short of success. Efforts to better support families of all sorts – biological, kinship, guardians, foster and adoptive families – needs to be prioritized.
If we truly want to see more children reading proficiently by third grade and more young people graduating from high school, college and career ready, then we must not ignore the other systems beyond education that will impact education success. The well-being of families directly impacts the well-being of children in families. As a state, we must do better to support families with the most challenges to ensure that their children have equitable opportunities to succeed in school and in life.
To learn more about the recently approved FY2016 budget, visit Michigan’s Children’s Budget Basics library.
June 22, 2015 – Governor Snyder’s Third Grade Reading Workgroup recently released its recommendations to improve Michigan’s lagging third grade reading scores. While almost every other state has seen reading proficiency rise, Michigan’s reading proficiency has steadily declined for the past 12 years. This troubling trend is even worse for students of color, students from low-income backgrounds, and students struggling with other big challenges like homelessness – all of whom are falling even more behind in their reading abilities.
For the academic success of all children and our state’s prosperity, we must do better.
To this end, Michigan’s Children is pleased to see much-needed, statewide attention on this critical benchmark for children’s learning. Failing to read proficiently by the end of third grade will lead to continued struggles in the classroom and long-term implications for students’ educational success.
The Third Grade Reading Workgroup provides a series of recommendations focused on the following strategies:
- identify students who need reading support and then provide appropriate interventions,
- ensure teachers have the tools they need to provide adequate literacy instruction,
- give parents the information they need to support their children’s literacy,
- implement a smart promotion strategy for kids as their learning progresses, and
- have adequate data to track our state’s success.
It’s timely that many of these strategies are supported by new investments in the state’s fiscal year 2015-2016 education omnibus budget that the Legislature approved earlier this month.
However, we must point out that the Workgroup’s recommendations don’t go far enough, particularly in assisting the most challenged students. To build upon the Workgroup’s recommendations, we should consider the following.
Let’s start with the focus on parents. We know that gaps in early literacy can emerge as early as nine months of age and that parents are responsible for their children’s early learning skills. The Workgroup’s recommendations identify parent coaching and support through home visits and parent-child classes as great tools to assist parents in their child’s development. But what can we do for the parents who struggle to read? Young learners will face more literacy hardships if their parents cannot support them through their reading journey. For this purpose, the state’s $3 million expansion in adult education for FY2016 is a necessary step towards addressing parent support and early literacy, which Michigan’s Children applauds. And, we need more and better investments that support two-generation family literacy programs to effectively increase literacy for both parents and their children if we want to see ongoing improvements to the state’s third grade reading scores.
Additionally, Michigan needs to better support kids and families served by Early On. Early On provides parents of infants and toddlers who have developmental delays or disabilities with early intervention services and tools to help their young children’s development. Adequate services can help many children develop skills at a level equal to their peers by age three. In fact, 40 percent of infants and toddlers who receive appropriate early intervention services do not need special education at preschool and kindergarten entry. It’s clear that Early On makes a huge difference in child development, but Michigan continues to be in the minority of states that fails to invest in Early On, leaving many students trailing when they enter kindergarten. This must change.
A huge step in the right direct is the inclusion of a $17.5 million initiative in FY2016 to provide additional learning time for students in grades K-3 who lack reading skills. But, for these funds to have the greatest impact, they must be applied to best-practices modeled by the federally funded 21st Century Community Learning Centers Program designed for high-poverty, low-performing schools. Through partnerships with schools and community-based groups, it provides enhanced before-school, after-school and summer-learning opportunities that have proven to increase student performance in reading and math, increase student participation and engagement in their education, and promote students’ development in other areas needed for success in school and life.
We must take advantage of the Governor and Legislature’s focus to improve literacy by building upon that momentum to ensure that all Michigan children are reading proficiently. Won’t you join us in those efforts?
– Mina Hong
This blog first appeared as an opinion piece in Bridge Magazine on June 16, 2015.
Join in and Celebrate #KeepKidsLearning on Wednesday
June 15, 2015 – Schools are out for the summer but should learning take a break? To prevent “summer slide” and the achievement gap, students struggling in the classroom need more time to master skills needed for college and career including summertime opportunities to catch up and stay on track.
To that end, advocates for children and families should be aware of a new advocacy opportunity on Friday, June 19. Sponsored by the National Summer Learning Association, it spotlights the need to reverse summer learning loss and close the achievement gap. Everyone is invited to join in – schools, parents, educators, policymakers, businesses – by visiting the Association’s website and making a pledge to #KeepKidsLearning. Won’t you?
For social media users, a simple thing we can all do to advocate for expanded learning and summer learning programs, including those that keep kids safe and nutritionally healthy, is to raise our voices in a loud chorus in the Association’s Thunderclap starting at 1 p.m. on Wednesday, June 17.
From an equity standpoint, access to high quality summer programs are particularly critical for students from low-income families, student of color, and students experiencing significant challenges that subsequently struggle in the classroom. For children at-risk of falling behind during the summer, the “summer slide” can cost as much as two months in grade level equivalency in both math and reading. Meanwhile, more affluent children who do have access to summer enrichment tend to make gains during these months.
By the time a child from a low‐income family reaches sixth grade, he or she has spent an estimated 6,000 fewer hours learning than a peer from a wealthy household, including 4,385 fewer hours in after‐school, summer and other extracurricular activities.
Research has shown us that expanded learning opportunities including summer programs are important strategies for reducing the achievement gap among our state and nation’s children.
Recognizing the importance of summer learning opportunities, many state and community coalitions around the country have prioritized summer learning to erase gaps in early literacy, boost 3rd grade reading proficiency, and improve high school graduation rates – all which are essential for children’s long-term success. Grade level reading proficiency has gained renewed importance in education reform in our state, too, where half of low-income students are not reading proficiently by the end of 3rd grade. And the statistics are worse for African American and Latino students. The Michigan Legislature earlier this month approved a FY2016 spending plan that includes new investments in early literacy.
Of course, summer learning is part of a bigger picture of expanded learning – a term that incorporates high-quality before- and after-school programs that expand the school day and summer opportunities to expand learning beyond the traditional school year. Together, these programs work to close achievement gaps by driving competency in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) areas, supporting reading skills across the K-12 spectrum, and ultimately improve high school graduation rates.
Michigan’s Children has been at the forefront on this issue, fighting to improve public policies and funding for expanded learning for kids who struggle in school. Recognition by the Governor and Legislature that expanded learning should be part of the strategy to improve 3rd grade reading was an important development this year, particularly because it came with an added $17.5 million investment for fiscal year 2016. Michigan’s Children is glad for this investment, and hopes to see this funding further targeted in the future to high-quality, evidenced programs through the 21st Century Community Learning Centers model. These programs have been funded under the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Coincidentally, a bill with bipartisan support to reauthorize the ESEA, which is long overdue, is expected to be debated on the Senate floor starting June 22.
One important way you can speak up in support of expanded learning is to contact your members of Congress to urge greater federal investment through the 21st Century Community Learning Centers. Another valuable thing to do is to talk to your state legislators about the importance of expanded learning. Thank them for supporting additional instruction time in the FY2016 state budget for K-3rd students, but also remind them that it doesn’t go far enough to ensure the students with the most challenges receive the types of high-quality programs – programs through the 21st Century Community Learning Centers – that we know can help them catch up, stay-on-track, and succeed.
Fortunately, specialized events such as Summer Learning Day encourage and educate all of us to push on for positive change – federally and in Michigan – to make a real difference in the educational success of all of our children.
Therefore on Wednesday, send a Tweet in support of #KeepKidsLearning and then come back on Friday to take the pledge to #KeepKidsLearning.
Here are some Sample Tweets for the Thunderclap:
#SummerLearning loss is a significant contributor to the #AchievementGap. #KeepKidsLearning bit.ly/SLDPledge
Kids from low-income families can lose 2 mos reading while higher-income make gains in the summer. #KeepKidsLearning bit.ly/SLDPledge
Kids in low-income communities struggle to access high quality learning during the summer. #KeepKidsLearning bit.ly/SLDPledge
— Teri Banas
Teri is a communications consultant working for Michigan’s Children.
“Expanded Learning Opportunities are Critical to Improve 3rd Grade Reading,” a Michigan’s Children Issues brief.
“Expanded Learning Opportunities for Michigan’s Most Challenged Children and Youth,” by Michigan’s Children.
Read the latest Michigan-specific data on summer learning from America After 3 pm.
June 15, 2015 – Administratively, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) allows adoption agencies to deny services to potential adoptive parents for any reason they see fit. Last week, June 11, Governor Rick Snyder signed a package of bills that made a section of that DHHS practice state law. Specifically, Governor Snyder codified the practice of allowing adoption agencies to reject potential adoptive families based on sincerely held religious beliefs. So what does this mean? Now all adoption agencies have the right to deny services to any family for any reason that “goes against their religious beliefs” including but not limited to same-sex and unmarried couples.
DHHS reports that at any given time approximately 13,000 Michigan children and youth are being served by the foster care system, with approximately 4,000 eligible for adoption. Children and youth in the foster care system need safe and nurturing homes until they can return to their families; and the children eligible for adoption need a stable permanent home. Homes where children have a loving supportive adult to help guide them. Michigan already faces a deficit of quality placements for children in out-of-home care, and putting limits unrelated to researched practice only further limits the number of forever family options for the children most in need in our state.
Through a recent KidSpeak forum in January, 2015, Michigan’s Children had the opportunity to speak with youth from the foster care system. The youth all expressed a common desire, one that research has shown to be common among many children in the foster care system – they want ways to make permanent, meaningful connections with a loving adult(s) who will help them access opportunities for success, and resources to help address the trauma they have experienced. They need these things now and for the rest of their lives. Michigan law should not define who the loving adults will be in ways unsupported by research or best practice.
Michigan’s Children hopes that from this attention and debate we take a closer look at how we are working toward building permanent options for all of the children and youth in our care. Instead of passing bills decreasing the options for children and families in need, why don’t we spend time and invest resources in recruiting, maintaining and supporting more successful foster and adoptive parents? Additionally, the state should invest much more in programs that support families struggling to provide safe and stable homes for their children; family reunification; and more out-of-home placement options for children unable to remain with their birth families, such as placing children with relatives and others as guardians or kinship parents.
Michigan, let’s invest in options that put the needs of children, youth and their families first. Let’s explore options to keep families together, and when that is not possible let’s expand the number of options for children, not limit them!
Learn more about what young people in the foster care system say they need to best support their unique circumstances and challenges.
Cainnear is an intern for Michigan’s Children. She is currently completing her MSW at the University of Michigan – School of Social Work.
June 2 – Raising kids isn’t easy. All families need support to take care of their children, regardless of socioeconomic status, race/ethnicity, or geography. And we know that all kids need the support of the community around them to ensure that they are healthy, developing appropriately, and learning the skills they need to succeed in school and in life. For the average family, this means regular appointments with pediatricians; regular communication with child care and k-12 teachers; confiding in a family member, close friend or member of the clergy when times are particularly challenging.
But what happens when parents are so incredibly challenged that they can no longer provide for their kids? What happens when their children no longer have access to that community support to ensure their well-being? Unfortunately, this is what happened to Stoni Blair and Stephen Berry – the children whose story we all know from their tragic deaths when their mother used homeschooling as an excuse to keep them away from important community supports to abuse and ultimately murder them.
In response to their deaths, Rep. Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit) introduced HB 4498 that would provide some level of oversight for families who choose to homeschool their children. This bill would require families to register with the Michigan Department of Education so that their children would be counted on the homeschooling registry. This would put Michigan on the same level as the rest of the nation, as one of the few remaining states that doesn’t require homeschooling families to register with their education system. And the bill would require twice-a-year in-person check-ins with a community support person of the parents’ choosing that could range from a doctor to a social worker to a child care provider to a member of the clergy. This would help families and kids – regardless of whether they are educated in a school building or at home – connect to the supports they need to receive healthy, safe, and enriching educations.
The tragic deaths of Stoni and Stephen and the subsequent introduction of Rep. Chang’s bill has spurred a lot of conversation at Michigan’s Children – as the state’s co-chapter lead of Prevent Child Abuse America – about what families truly need to provide safe, stable and nurturing homes for their children. What happened to Stoni and Stephen are the anomaly. But any child’s death is a stark reminder that Michigan needs to do more to support its most severely challenged families. This means ensuring that parents have what they need to provide safe and stable homes including access to mental health services for kids and parents alike; ensuring that when families are identified by Child Protective Services as Stoni and Stephen were, that the child welfare system has sufficient resources to provide families with adequate and appropriate wraparound services; and truly acknowledging the trauma that parents and children experience and how to appropriately intervene with both in a trauma-informed way. To do this, Michigan needs adequate investment in the intensive community-based services that CPS case workers could refer families to that would help families address things like mental health conditions, deep and persistent poverty, trauma and other major stressors.
Rep. Chang’s bill is a small step to make sure all kids and families have consistent connections to community support. And we must take a closer look at the successes and challenges faced by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Education to ensure that they have what they need to do their jobs well so that all families have the tools they need to adequately provide for their kids so that all children can succeed.
May 26, 2015 – Last week the new State Superintendent-elect and the Education Trust Midwest announced new educational goal-setting priorities in Michigan. The purpose of these new state efforts is to improve educational outcomes that in recent years have moved further and further away from the most successful states. The new educational goal-setting priorities aim to put Michigan back on a trajectory that will lead to more success for our kids, schools and communities.
Statewide goals for improving education? Great, let’s give that another try. There have been many state and federal goals for improving educational outcomes over the years – most recently, those goals have come with both carrots and sticks for the schools and communities who serve those lowest performing students. The Ed Trust’s Michigan Achieves initiative suggests that we continue some current efforts that have shown success, and that we also take a closer look at the efforts of states who have better outcomes than we do. And the new Superintendent publicly agrees.
A great step, right? You set a goal for improvement, and then you shift your program investments to be able to meet that goal. Michigan’s Children is all in. As I’ve certainly said too many times to count, we absolutely know what it takes to improve educational and other life outcomes for children, youth and families. We have decades of research, we have innovative and effective practice from other states and from within our own. What we have not had is appropriate investment in what works to improve equity in these outcomes.
Relatedly, members of Congress introduced a bill that would require the U.S. to set goals for reducing child poverty – similar to what took place in the U.K. over the past several years with impressive results. The impact of economic insecurity on the well-being of children, youth and families can not be overstated. Research has shown that poverty (particularly extreme poverty and living in poverty for many years) is tied with nearly every negative outcome. Everyone from all ends of the political spectrum recognizes this. Some members of Congress are suggesting that instead of wringing our hands and continuing to pay for the consequences of those outcomes, we set a goal and move to change the situation.
What really struck me here was the intimate connection between these two goals – the clearest path to better economic security is educational success, so we won’t reach the poverty goal without focusing on the education goal. In addition, we are unlikely to move the needle on educational goals without tackling challenges that families face outside of the school building, day and year as well.
Let’s start now, in the current budget conversation. There are stark differences in state budget proposals that will be decided on by small numbers of legislators over the next few weeks. Three that we’ve pulled out that will take us closer to both goals:
- Investment in 3rd grade reading. The Senate included additional investments in 3rd grade reading success. Particularly important for equity is the Senate recommendation for $10 million to expand learning opportunities for the most challenged kids. This isn’t enough (we’ll be going for at least $50 million moving forward), but it is certainly a start.
- Investments in the most challenged kids, schools and communities. The Senate included an additional $100 million to fund programs specifically for learners with identified barriers. The House didn’t include this increase.
- Investments in family literacy. We will not reach either poverty or education goals if we don’t make sure that every parent can assist every child as their first and best teacher. With 34,000 young adults in Michigan (ages 18-34) without even a 9th grade education we need more investment. The Senate included an increase in the adult education program, while the House eliminated it all together.
Let’s keep talking. Moving beyond the current budget year, our Legislature and Congressional Delegation need to prioritize many supports for the most challenged, including: services that prevent later problems like child abuse and neglect prevention, home visiting support and Early On; services that improve outcomes for young people in the state’s care through the Foster Care and Juvenile Justice systems and their families; and services that best support college and career success like early learning, expanded learning, family literacy and integrated student services.
Let’s talk about setting goals and let’s keep working to meet them.
— Michele Corey
May 21, 2015 — During this year’s Foster Care Awareness Month, the National Kids Count project released a report, Every Kid Needs a Family: Giving Children in the Child Welfare System the Best Chance for Success. The report suggests that Michigan overuses congregate care options when a family setting would better serve children in our state’s foster care system. The report puts forth three simple recommendations:
- Expand the service array to ensure that children remain in families. Michigan has experienced several decades of disinvestment in programs that strengthen families, and has eliminated most state funding from abuse and neglect prevention programs. One bright spot – the recent focus on investments in home visiting programs, proven to identify needs early and connect families to necessary support. Better investments in preventing and intervening with some of the most common reasons for removal are essential. We need to invest more in keeping families stable in the first place, helping parents rebuild their lives, and supporting reunification once situations have improved.
- Recruit, strengthen and retain more foster families, and increase the utilization of family members other than parents as caregivers for foster children. In Michigan and elsewhere in the United States there have not been enough available and trained foster families or relatives; and not enough supports for family placements. The Michigan League for Public Policy, who directs the Kids Count in Michigan project, outlines this well in their blog about the recent release.
- Support decision making that ensures that children removed from their homes are placed in the least restrictive setting. The public and private systems in Michigan need to be held accountable for developing and maintaining appropriate placement options for children and youth depending on their needs, and adequately investing in these options. In addition, we need to reframe more restrictive care settings as a treatment option, where custody during that placement remains intact with a parent or foster parent, and remove impediments to maintaining existing caregiver relationships during those placements.
Michigan’s Children has talked to many young people over the years, some who have experience in the foster care system (see our most recent guest blog from Ronnie Stephenson, and discussions from a recent KidSpeak on the issue.) All of the young people Michigan’s Children has spoken to about the foster care system talk about the need for the stable support that comes with family ties, including a stable place to call home and adults who are committed to their success for the long-term. Many talk about the need for adequate treatment and intervention settings where necessary. They also talk about wanting to help direct their own services within the foster care system, including establishing or maintaining connections with their birth families and others in their home communities. In addition, young people want better access to the same opportunities for involvement in their learning, peer group and community that other young people do – access to what is now termed as a more “naturalized” environment – whether they are in foster homes, group homes, other congregate care or supervised in their own homes.
In part due to the powerful voices of young people expressed over the last several years, through our work, the Michigan Youth Opportunities Initiative and Fostering Success Michigan and the work of many other partners, Michigan’s Children met this week with a bi-partisan group of Legislators, staff and other advocates to begin to frame out changes that Michigan needs to make in order to better support the range of families that care for young people – their birth families, their foster and adoptive families, and other relatives who serve as caregivers. While Michigan has recognized some deficiencies in its child welfare system, there is still a long way to go before we are giving all children the best chance for success. The Departmental merger between Community Health and Human Services and the Governor’s articulation of the need to better connect services to serve families are opportunities to further this work. Recognizing that reform needs to center around providing family support in whatever way possible for those young people we are responsible for is a necessary step for moving in the right direction. Michigan’s Children is very excited to be part of this effort.
— Michele Corey
May 19, 2015 — As I was finishing up eighth grade at Grand Blanc West Middle School, my life drastically changed when I was removed from my biological father’s home and swiftly put into the care of the Genesee County Department of Human Services. Over four years, I lived with five families and attended numerous high schools, and discovered faults in the system that I was felt forced into and trapped in.
I found out quickly that no one really asked what I wanted and that my voice was not being heard by the foster parents, case workers, and lawyer in my life. I felt they didn’t hear me when I described what I wanted to happen with my life or what I thought would be a better fit for me regarding schools, foster parents, or any of the decisions that were made on my behalf. It was very hard to get anything done, as well. If I needed school clothes, there was paper work and court papers that needed to be filed out that always got lost without anyone held accountable. It felt like I was always given the run-around. I had so many different case workers that nothing was productive or got done. I was frustrated and finally decided to speak up for myself. I started going to every one of my court hearings and speaking to the judge myself.
As I got older, I was inspired to make a difference and encourage other foster children to raise their voices, also. I wanted to shed light on the difficulties and problems within the system that I had experienced. While attending Western Michigan University, I decided to take a position as a casework aide at a local private agency for foster care and adoptions one summer. This job made me come to the realization that the system was still very broken. No one is held accountable, foster care workers are not trained properly, casework and paperwork gets lost, and then you have policy which holds families up from becoming foster parents and/or adopting. Frustration and anger made me decide that while I didn’t want to work with families and foster children directly, I did want to work on policy solutions on these issues.
The next semester I took a Philosophy of Law class, and my professor came across an internship at the state House of Representatives that he thought I would be interested in. I decided to look into it, and actually got a position with one of the lawmakers, and that was Rep. Martin Howrylak, R-Troy. He hired me the next year and the year after that I went to work for newly elected Rep. Brandt Iden, R-Portage, from the Kalamazoo area.
My experiences in the Legislature included testifying before committees, including discussing the importance of expanding the eligibility age of Medicare to 21 to benefit youth in foster care. (The proposal did move to the House Floor.) I shared and expressed my concerns and helped one of my bosses prepare House Bill 5741, which proposed an interstate compact for the placement of children in foster care. Though it was heard before the committee on Children and Family services, it unfortunately was never reported out. I have attended many events with children in foster care throughout the state of Michigan and even have participated in speaking events for foster parents and children. Having this experience has made me a better legislative assistant in the House of Representatives. I can relate to constituents when they call us with issues regarding the Department of Human Services, know how they feel, and try to help them navigate through the system.
Changes do need to occur within the foster care system for all parties involved — children and the foster families. And, I am a firm believer that changes can and will happen, as long as foster care children continue to express our positions and feelings. And I encourage anyone — foster parent or child –to convey or continue to express your concerns, because nothing will change unless we do.
– Ronnie Stephenson
Besides working at the Capitol, Ronnie Stephenson, now entering her Senior year at Western Michigan University, is an intern for the national non-profit, Together We Rise, and is raising money for suitcases for Kalamazoo-area youths in foster care. Her webpage: http://www.togetherwerise.org/fundraise/HopeForKzoo. Michigan’s Children is honored to partner with Ronnie.
April 16, 2015 – April is Child Abuse Prevention Month. It’s a time to cast a light on the important services and programs that families with many significant challenges need to provide safe and stable homes for their children. April is also a time when the Legislature is putting together the state budget for fiscal year 2016, which begins on October 1 of this year and ends September 30 of next year. There are a couple of things related to the budget that we think are important for Michigan residents to realize and to take action on.
First, Michigan relies heavily on federal funds to support our abuse and neglect prevention services. This is because state investment in those programs has been virtually eliminated as our state was dealing with a structural budget deficit in addition to an increased focus on investing in much needed improvements in the state’s foster care system, as required by the Children’s Rights settlement agreement. And this investment has paid off, since many of our goals to improve the foster care system have been met (though we still have a long way to go with others). But with this focus and investment to improve our foster care system, abuse/neglect prevention funding has not kept pace and has in fact declined. Couple that with our persistent, unacceptable, and rising child poverty rate; it’s no surprise that child maltreatment has been on the rise too.
In light of all of this, a recently approved budget by the House Appropriations Subcommittee for the Department of Human Services actually removed $2.75 million of federal TANF funding currently supporting child abuse/neglect prevention and family preservation programs to replace state general funds in the Family Independence Program – the state’s cash assistance program. Ensuring that very low-income working families have access to cash assistance is critically important so that they can meet their children’s basic needs. Ensuring that maltreated children who have been removed from their homes or are at imminent risk of being removed have access to intensive family-focused services is also important so that children can stay or be reunified with their parents and have a stable and safe home environment. Supporting parents with the tools they need to provide a nurturing and safe home provides the foundation for their children’s future success.
There is still time to influence the state budget. These budget bills will next head to the full appropriations committees in each chamber before going to the full House and Senate before differences are negotiated. We can and should be talking to our elected officials about the Senate version that maintains funding for these critical abuse/neglect prevention programs. It should be noted that the Senate version also maintains FIP cash assistance without reducing state investment in that program.
Another important thing to point out is that the House’s shuffling of federal TANF funds illustrates what will likely happen if the May 5th ballot proposal fails. That’s right, I’m talking about the ballot proposal to fix our state’s roads. Proposal 1 provides an opportunity for new revenue – including new state general funds – to fix our roads, increase funding for schools and local municipalities, and reinstate the EITC. If Proposal 1 fails, the Legislature will likely go back to the drawing boards for the FY2016 budget to see where they can pull out the over $1 billion needed to fix the roads. If the ballot proposal fails, Michigan’s most challenged children and families will most likely face even more hardships as our state tries to shuffle around federal dollars as state funds are diverted to fix our roads.
During Child Abuse Prevention Month, and on May 5th, please be sure to take action for Michigan’s most challenged families and their children.