Speaking For Kids

Why Does Big Bird Matter?

By now, I’m sure you’ve heard about the Mitt Romney, Big Bird, PBS fiasco and all of the political hoopla that has resulted from Presidential Candidate Romney’s comment at last week’s debate.  And while we at Michigan’s Children like to avoid this type of hoopla, Big Bird does represent educational opportunities outside the classroom and brings to mind the impact that the elections will have on education.

Big Bird and Sesame Street epitomize the importance of having access to educational opportunities outside the traditional classroom – whether in high quality child care settings that provide engaging developmentally appropriate learning opportunities or in after-school programs that help connect what kids are learning in math class to real world experiences and careers.

In Michigan, we are starting to pay needed attention to our gap in academic achievement between low-income kids and kids of color and their peers – the equity gap.  Pressure from the Federal government and our own demographics are forcing this attention, as Michigan’s kids of color continue to make up larger and larger shares of all our children – our future parents, voters and workforce.

As a state, we rely heavily on federal funding to support programs serving kids and families who struggle to access high quality opportunities outside of the traditional classroom.  Much of our state’s efforts to provide these types of programs serve kids from low-income families and kids of color who struggle the most to achieve academically.  And these high quality programs are proven to increase educational equity by helping to reduce the academic achievement gap. So what types of programs are we talking about?  Federally funded programs in Michigan include:

  • high quality home visitation programs that help parents become the great parents they want to be,
  • high quality child care programs that allow parents to work while kids learn,
  • school-based health and nutrition programs that keeps kids healthy and hunger-free so they can actively participate in the classroom,
  • after-school programs that keep kids learning and engaged after the last school bell rings, and
  • partnerships with community colleges and workforce development that keep young people in school or reconnect them to education.

So what does this mean for the elections?  With the Congressional gridlock that we’ve seen, whether federal funding will continue to flow to our state for equity promoting programs is uncertain.  Thus, it is our responsibility to elect individuals who we believe will be good stewards of our public dollars and will ensure that these types of programs will, at a minimum, maintain their funding and hopefully increase to serve more kids and better prepare our future workforce.  At Michigan’s Children, we believe this means hiring (because that is what we’re doing when we elect public officials into office) individuals who believe in a fair approach to tackling the federal deficit that does not further cut programs that promote equitable opportunities to educational success.

In Michigan, we have a statewide Senate race and every single Congressperson is facing re-election this November.  So do you know where the candidates stand on these types of issues?  Learn how you can engage with candidates by visiting our Vote for Michigan’s children webpage.

-Mina Hong

Registered to Vote? Election Advocacy 101: Learn Candidates’ Positions on Children’s Issues.

Voter registration deadline is quickly approaching and the presidential debates begin this week.  It’s a perfect time to get swept up in the excitement (assuming you’re not already turned off by all of the rhetoric) and get engaged in election advocacy to make sure that children’s issues are a top priority this November.

Obviously registering to vote is the perfect first step.  It is critical for all eligible voters to go out to the polls this November 6th.  Efforts to drive voters – particularly voters of color – away from the polls are just scare tactics with no legal basis.  Ensuring that those most affected by public policy decisions – children and families from low-income communities and communities of color – have the power of their vote is critically important.  Be sure to register to vote by the October 9th deadline and check out the ACLU of Michigan’s Let Me Vote campaign for more information to ensure your vote counts!

After you register to vote, learn the candidates’ positions on children’s issues.  This Wednesday marks the first in a series of four presidential candidate debates.  The debates provide an opportunity to learn about the candidates’ positions on various issues to help you make an informed decision on November 6th.  Watch the debates and listen to the candidates’ positions on issues that will affect children and families in your community and those most challenged by their circumstances.

Here are a handful of children’s issues that are critical to ensure that all children – particularly children of color and those from low-income communities – have equitable opportunities to succeed in life.  Listen for the following topics to come up during the debates; and if they don’t come up, what does that tell you?

  • A Healthy Start: Too many young children do not get a healthy start in life.  Nearly 1,000 Michigan infants die in the first year of life, and African American children are three times more likely to die before age 1.  Ensuring all children have a healthy start in life by increasing access to infant mortality prevention and parent support programs like home visitation can help reduce Michigan’s unacceptable infant mortality rate.
  • Access to Basic Needs: Michigan experienced a 64 percent increase in childhood poverty between 2000 and 2009, with nearly one of every four children in the state now living in poverty.  High poverty rates are even more prevalent for children of color. Access to poverty-prevention programs such as cash assistance, food assistance, and housing assistance protects children from the detrimental impacts that poverty may have on child development.
  • Child Abuse/Neglect Prevention: The number of victims of child abuse and neglect has grown by 21 percent in the first decade of this century. Family preservation and child abuse/neglect prevention programs can help turnaround these figures and keep Michigan kids safe.
  • Early Education:  A 2009 survey of Michigan kindergarten teachers found that one-third of children entering their classrooms are not ready to learn, and the lack of opportunity to attend a preschool program is a primary reason that kindergartners are trailing behind their peers.  Access to high quality early learning programs can help young children be prepared for educational success.
  • High School Completion:  Nearly 35,000 Michigan young people did not receive a high school diploma in the spring of 2011 – more than one-quarter of the students who began high school four-years earlier.  Young people of color or those from economically disadvantaged families remain the least likely to graduate “on-time” with their peers.  Expanding access to strategies outside of the traditional four-year high school experience can help many students reach graduation and prepare for the workforce.
  • Access to a Consistent Source of Medical Care: Too many Michigan families have lost their employer-sponsored health care or are under-insured resulting in more children becoming reliant on public insurance programs like Medicaid or MIChild. Unfortunately, too many children are being denied access to services that keep them healthy due to chronically low Medicaid reimbursement rates.  Luckily, due to the passage of the federal Affordable Care Act, Medicaid rates will go up in Michigan starting in the 2012-2013 fiscal year, increasing access to a consistent source of medical care and keeping Michigan kids healthy.

See Michigan’s Children’s Election Advocacy Toolkit and stay tuned for regular blogs between now and the elections to learn more about how you can get engaged in election advocacy.

-Mina Hong

E is for Education, not Expulsion

Students in Michigan are being stripped of educational opportunity and future economic security because of school expulsion and suspension. Michigan’s Children applauds a recent Resolution adopted by the State Board of Education that begins to address district disciplinary policies that are stricter than state and federal law.

Michigan law currently requires school expulsion in certain circumstances, including zero tolerance for guns, arson, or committing criminal sexual conduct in a school building or on school grounds.  However, both state law and the State Board Resolution remind school boards that they are NOT required to expel a student possessing a weapon if any one of the following is established:

  1. The student did not intend on using the object as a weapon, or to give to someone else to use as a weapon.
  2. The student did not know they had the weapon.
  3. The student didn’t know the object was a weapon.
  4. The student had permission to carry the weapon from school or police authorities.

We applaud the Board for acknowledging that certain groups of students – students from communities of color and children with disabilities – are more likely to be suspended and expelled, as well as their encouragement to local districts to review discipline policies that are more stringent than the law.

But they didn’t go far enough.

The Resolution encourages using alternatives to expulsion and suspension, like restorative justice and peer mediation, as well as increased professional development for teachers and administrators alike. However the Resolution fails to recognize the vast number of community resources available to assist with school behavior issues, particularly for students with mental health needs beyond the capacity of traditional school counselors.

The Resolution states that “students that have been suspended or expelled have no alternative opportunities for learning,” and the Board missed an opportunity to encourage alternative options to expulsion that would not end a students’ educational career. [They even say the word in the sentence.]

The Resolution fails to suggest what might be done differently when a student does need to be suspended or expelled. Alternative Education options all over the state are meeting the needs of former “behavior problem” students, with great success. The State Board could encourage districts to develop a plan for students to continue their education, even when the traditional school system isn’t working and thus eliminating a major part of the school-to-prison pipeline.

School Boards and Assistant Principals, typically responsible for school discipline issues, need to utilize the alternative education options in their communities and where there aren’t enough available, work with other local principals, districts, ISD’s and community agencies to develop the educational options they need to keep the kids in their communities in school.

For information about communities that have built programs that work, check out this Focus on Michigan’s Communities piece.

-Beth Berglin

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