Speaking For Kids

A Year in Review for Michigan’s Children

2011 began with a new Governor unveiling his priorities for the state, expressed through his dashboard indicators, early budget proposals and a series of special messages. To bring to the Governor a consistent message on early childhood, Michigan’s Children continued its long-standing practice of convening early childhood advocates to identify shared policy priorities. The 2011 priorities focused on improving access to mental health consultation for infants and toddlers; improving access to a regular consistent source of health care; and expanding access to early childhood education.  Michigan’s Children continued to partner with other advocates to promote dropout prevention, re-engagement and recovery options for young people through administrative and legislative strategies throughout the year.

Unfortunately, as in years past, much of Michigan’s Children’s work in 2011 focused on fending off detrimental cuts to necessary programs in the fiscal year 2012 (FY12) budget.  Cuts that remained despite our efforts included changes to the child care subsidy for low-income working families resulting in lower provider payments for relative and aide care, an almost entire elimination of the children’s clothing allowance for low-income families, deep cuts to family support programs, a sharp reduction to the earned income tax credit and stricter 48- and 60-month limits to cash assistance, deep cuts to the K-12 per pupil allotment, and cuts to local public health departments and community mental health.

Michigan’s Children worked hard with Legislators and other advocates to ensure that  an additional $6 million for the state’s preschool program for four-year-olds who may be at-risk of school failure was included in the FY 12 budget, as well as $1.5 million for the Nurse Family Partnership program, a voluntary home visitation program that assists first time moms through their pregnancies and with their new babies.    Many programs that serve to remove barriers to learning for young people were maintained at current funding levels.  Unfortunately, these small investments may not be enough to offset the detrimental cuts made in other areas and flat funding in many of these supportive programs will not serve to close equity gaps or to improve educational success.

Throughout 2011, Michigan’s Children brought policymakers together with researchers, agency staff and young people to help inform their decision-making.  We held a legislative hearing at the HighScope Educational Research Foundation on the effects of early childhood experience on brain development and the positive outcomes and high return on investment of high quality early childhood care and education programs serving children from birth to age five and their families.  Young people’s voices were heard by federal, state and local policymakers, and community leaders in two KidSpeak events and Youth Voice Changing Public Policy events across the state, including one held at the Governor’s Education Summit.  Our youth journalists reported on news in their communities in Detroit in ways that can only be captured through their eyes.

2011 brought a re-issuance of the Superintendent’s Dropout Challenge, and Michigan’s Children continues to work to connect the dots between educators and community partners to improve graduation rates even through the 5th and 6th years of high school.  In addition, the  Office of Great Start was created within the Department of Education and charged with aligning the state’s early learning and development investments to achieve a single set of shared outcomes. A former Michigan’s Children board member, Susan Broman, was named as the Office’s first leader.

We shared all of this information with you and engaged you in the work through our E-Bulletin, our Action Networks, on Facebook, Twitter, and our new staff blog, Speaking for Kids.

Policies and related practices that fail to improve outcomes for all children and reduce disparities among all children, regardless of their from different racial and ethnic backgrounds throughout a child’s life must be replaced with those that facilitate equal opportunity for all children to thrive in school, the work place and life.  We look forward to continue this work together in the new year.

-Michele Corey

Cut Off But Not Cut Out

Last week, Michigan’s Children along with the University of Michigan School of Social Work (UM-SSW) convened a gathering of social service and outreach agencies to gain a better understanding of the recent policy changes to the Family Independence Program – the state’s cash assistance program – and how social service providers can better outreach to families getting cut off cash assistance.  Friends of Michigan’s Children including the Center for Civil Justice, United Way, Alternatives for Girls, Southwest Solutions, and Starfish Family Services were in attendance at the extremely sobering meeting.  The bottom line – too many families in Southeast Michigan, particularly families of color, are losing their cash assistance as many begin to prepare for the cold holiday season.

The unclear and nontransparent process of notifying families of the changes to their cash assistance has left many families confused as to the appeal process; what services they can and cannot receive; and how to keep their children safe, fed and warm during these winter months.  And the loss of cash assistance is on top of numerous other cuts to benefits that assist low-income families including child care assistance, clothing assistance for children, and asset testing for food assistance benefits.  Luckily for Michigan, great social service agencies throughout our state are doing everything they can to help families during this difficult time.  But will this be enough?

Last week’s convening walked service providers through the MI-BRIDGES web portal where families can change their monthly income and check their DHS benefits as well as the United Way’s 2-1-1 website where individuals can search for other non-DHS resources available to families.

For Michigan’s Children, last week’s meeting was the first step among many steps in our efforts to build a case to strengthen public policies for Michigan’s low-income families.  Though policy change can be a slow and drawn-out process, convening front line workers and agencies, collaborating with partners and sharing information is critical to informing policymakers on the best policy solutions to support low-income families and children.

-Mina Hong

Much to Do About Something

Last week, Michigan’s Children took some time to honor the work of a handful of Legislators whose actions supporting children and families in Michigan warranted our recognition. At our annual Much Ado About Something Wonderful event, we honor Legislators for all kinds of different aspects of their work, since we recognize what an amazingly complex and difficult job they have to do. Some honorees were responsible, at least in part, for good legislation – good decisions through the budget process and elsewhere. Others worked really hard to thwart bad decisions by their colleagues, or to push a positive agenda that may, in the end, not have made it through our process. Others simply put the kind of time and energy into their relationships with constituents that create better policy decision-making.

We expect from our honorees, from all of the Legislature and from the Administration, that the decisions they make impacting the lives of children, families and communities in Michigan will be based always in research and evidence, and that they will be vetted by those most impacted – young people, their families, and those adults around the state who work to support them. We are glad for some of the past actions of our honorees, and we expect that their decision-making will continue to be consistent with the kinds of investments needed to rebuild and strengthen Michigan’s economy.

As I think about the six members of our state Legislature who received our accolades that snowy night, it is impossible not to move from the thanks they deserve to the challenges they will continue to face in 2012. Children across Michigan remain in dire circumstances with support programs vanishing, poverty rates increasing and inequities in outcomes expanding. Legislators will either take advantage of the opportunity that their leadership position grants them to better position children and their families, or fail to do so.

Education reform conversations in 2011 still failed to address the kinds of evidence-based, cradle-to-career strategies needed to improve student achievement. We expect some expansion of that conversation in 2012 to a cradle-to-career strategy that includes issues beyond those being discussed at this moment. We need a research-based conversation about core instruction and instructors that moves Michigan toward more well-trained and well-supported teachers and administrators. We need that conversation to include adequate and consistent support around the state for educational, cultural and workforce enrichment opportunities so critical to the relevance of education and the connections young people need to the world of work. Finally, we need that conversation to acknowledge the need to support those programs, practices and partnerships beyond the school walls that remove barriers to learning, including those that serve our youngest learners, ages 0-5.

Overall, funding and tax priorities in 2011 still failed to invest adequately in strategies shown to improve outcomes for children and families. We expect some changes to those priorities in 2012. The Governor and the Legislature will again face difficult choices in the Fiscal Year 2013 budget and will need to make sure that their decisions lead Michigan to smarter investments in our human capitol that pay off in the longer term.

For the sake of our state, we’ll be working to help legislators make decisions that will benefit children the most and thank them when they do.

-Michele Corey

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