Speaking for Kids

Does GSRP Have the Wrong Intentions?

Last week, the Michigan House and Senate education committees heard from Susan Broman, Deputy Superintendent of the MDE – Office of Great Start, and others on the Governor’s proposal to expand the Great Start Readiness Preschool Program (GSRP).  That’s right, in case you’ve missed it, the Governor has proposed an unprecedented expansion of Michigan’s public preschool program for four-year-olds at-risk of being under-prepared for kindergarten.  Specifically, he’s calling for a $130 million increase over the next two years starting with a $65 million increase in fiscal year 2014, the budget that the Michigan Legislature is currently developing.  And all who attended the hearings got the first real public glimpse of opposition to this GSRP expansion.

I will say, I wasn’t surprised by the questions asked, and if anything, most of them helped to make the case about why we really need to invest in high quality early learning programs.

The Mackinac Center argued that the highest return on investment was seen in programs like the landmark Perry Preschool Program in Ypsilanti that served at-risk three- and four-year old African American children.  And it’s true.  The highest returns are seen in programs that invest in quality (the Perry Preschool Program cost on average $12,270 per child in 2013 dollars).  Luckily, GSRP is also a high quality early education program that’s significantly cheaper than the Perry Preschool but has improved student outcomes while saving taxpayer dollars.

Legislators rightfully asked about the eligibility requirements for GSRP, questioning whether serving families up to 300% of the federal poverty level (FPL) creates a middle-class program rather than targeting the families who need it most.   The answer is no.  GSRP specifically prioritizes children in families at 200% FPL or below – 200% FPL being $47,100 for a family of four.  Families above 200% FPL are only eligible for GSRP if the child faces serious risk like a developmental delay, serious behavioral issues, primary home language not being English, child abuse/neglect, etc.  For families above 300% FPL (less than 10% of GSRP recipients are currently above 300% FPL), their child must face at least two risk factors to be eligible for the program.  So, we’re not talking about expanding a middle-class program, but rather serving children who are most at-risk of starting school behind.  (Want to know more about GSRP eligibility?  Check out this eligibility flow chart from MDE.)

Other legislators questioned whether GSRP was essentially taking children away from their homes and taking away parental responsibility.  Again, the answer is no.  Parents understand the benefits of preschool, which is why the majority of middle- and upper-income families send their children to pre-k programs.  Children and families who would benefit the most from high quality early childhood programs (as evidenced by Perry Preschool and GSRP evaluations) are children of color and children from low-income families with multiple risk factors who face difficulty accessing these programs.  (Today, there are about 16,000 four-year-olds below 200% FPL who are not accessing GSRP.)  Additionally, GSRP programs are required to have a family engagement piece built right-in, such as providing a minimum of four family contacts per year to involve families in the children’s education at school and to help them provide educational experiences for the children at home; and including GSRP parents in the programs’ regional advisory committees.  (See more information about parent involvement requirements in GSRP.)

Finally, there was much confusion among legislators about the Head Start Impact Study that showed a third-grade “fadeout” and if this might mean that GSRP shouldn’t be expanded as well – demonstrating confusion about how the two programs interplay.  Study after study have confirmed the significant long-term benefits that Head Start graduates experience compared to their peers such as high school completion, college attainment, secure employment, and healthier lives.  And in fact, for the most at-risk Head Start graduates – English language learners, foster kids, children of color, and children with special needs – fadeout was not evident.  If anything, any “fadeout” demonstrates the need to strengthen early childhood programs at the same time as strengthening K-12 education.  The federal government is already working to improve Head Start quality through re-competition.  Michigan must also step to the plate by continuing to support high quality early learning experiences through GSRP expansion while also strengthening our K-12 education system to better serve our most challenged students.

Next week, the House is expected to unveil their recommendations for fiscal year 2014; and the Senate is expected to do the same at the beginning of April.  We must continue to talk to our legislators about the benefits of GSRP to our children, our family, and our community.  To assist in your conversations, take a look at our GSRP Q&A fact sheet with legislators’ commonly asked questions. And check-out our guest column in Bridge Magazine talking about the benefits of GSRP within the larger P-20 education continuum.

-Mina Hong

Opportunities Toward Empowerment

In the last two months as Michigan’s Children’s new intern, opportunities toward empowerment have surfaced as a main theme that permeates the work I have witnessed here.

One of Michigan’s Children’s key advocacy strategies is to participate in the education of constituents and community leaders all over Michigan. On our webpage we offer budget breakdowns, arrange overviews on gaps in educational and racial equity, and provide resources for contacting legislators.  We create opportunities for empowerment of youth voice such as our annual KidSpeak© event, which brings youth to the Capital and provides a space for their perspective and opinion to be heard by legislators.

We also meet with community groups or organizations and present on a variety of topics concerning children’s issues.  In a recent meeting with The Coordinating Council of Calhoun County (TCC), a community group centered on promoting optimum well-being of all people in their county, the dynamics of cooperation, knowledge and collaboration give way to an impressive response.

During a presentation by Mina Hong, our senior policy associate, TCC was encouraged to gather into groups and create an advocacy strategy.  From a knowledge that only comes with an eagerness to be involved in the multiple issues facing their community, TCC members identified key issues, they came together and brainstormed multiple people in power that they could influence, and they identified community members with strengths that could be effective at communicating. What I saw that morning was a group of community leaders come together, cooperate, communicate and build on one another.

After a couple of weeks of observing policy being created and interviewing mothers of disadvantaged children (stay tuned for a publication based on those interviews in the following weeks), it can be easy to feel a little weighed down by the inherent complexity of advocacy work and the stories of struggle of some of our most vulnerable children. But of course, as we often find out, these are not the only stories being told in Michigan.  TCC demonstrated that and I learned a valuable lesson, that there is a wealth of strength and power in our communities and in our people.

This brings me back to my reflection on our work, that through the encouragement and provision of information to constituents, we have the opportunity to build upon what was already there: strong people doing hard things for the benefit of their neighbors. 

-Ben Kaiser

Ben is a BSW student at Cornerstone University completing his practicum with Michigan’s Children

Will Michigan Leaders Rise to the Sequestration Challenge?

I know, I know.  We are all a bit fatigued by the Sequestration conversation.  The word itself is too complicated and irritating, and the public is so fed up with reports of partisan bickering and inactivity in Washington, DC that they just expect that our elected officials won’t reach any solution to yet another stage of our country’s ongoing fiscal crisis.  However, on the day that without further action, the federal government will remove millions of dollars directly from Michigan coffers, I felt the need to talk about it one more time.

We rely so heavily in Michigan on federal funding, particularly for the programs that do the most to promote equity in our state – those that directly target disparities present by race and ethnicity, by income, or by other characteristics like speaking English as a second language or needing Special Education services; and others that don’t specifically target particular populations but still successfully reduce the equity gap.  In the face of a future workforce set to be its most diverse yet, Michigan leaders have spent the last decade or so disinvesting state resource in the kinds of programs that are proven effective in closing equity gaps – resulting in deeper and deeper reliance on federal funding.

The State Budget Director reflected his concerns about the potential cuts in assistance to poor families, low-income pregnant women, young children – really the most vulnerable among us.  He also reflected that the state is in no position to offset federal reductions to these and other engines of economic recovery, like education, job training and college scholarships, which we all would have surmised.

As the Legislature discusses the Governor’s proposal for how we finance operations in the state of Michigan, they aren’t basing their priorities on the changing Federal playing field, but they really need to start.  I can point to several places where we will need to rise to this unprecedented budgeting challenge that will be faced by everyone, but faced more acutely by the children and families who experience the greatest challenges themselves.  You’ve heard all of these from Michigan’s Children before:

  • reinstating the Earned Income Tax Credit to fiscal year 2012 levels;
  • increasing investment for family support services that reach struggling families with infants and toddlers; and
  • include equity building strategies of preschool, after-school and more time for high school graduation in any education reform and financing decisions.

Unfortunately, I can point to only one strategy where they are discussing the kind of investment necessary – the proposed increase in the state’s proven effective preschool program.  This increased funding is more important today than it was even yesterday, but it is certainly not enough.

Now is not the time to bury our heads in the sand.  The impact of sequestration cuts will have devastating effects on our state’s budget and on the state’s ability to close equity gaps in income, health and educational success.  We have to keep talking to our Congressional Delegation about the impact of federal funding in this state, and remind them that they still have an opportunity to reverse the sequester cuts in budget discussions for the remainder of the federal fiscal year.

We also have to demand that our Governor and State Legislature step to the plate to increase investment in the programs that matter to the future of Michigan.

-Michele Corey

Why Health Insurance Matters to an Equitable P-20 System

Here at Michigan’s Children, we recently switched our health insurance plan, and I’ve been dealing with the headaches associated with it.  Mainly, finding a new physician (that the customer service folks at the health insurance company had confirmed twice was in-network) and then finding out that my doctor isn’t actually in-network when it came time to pay the bill.  Basically, meaning that I have to cover more of the doctor visit out-of-pocket rather than being covered by my insurance.  (Don’t worry, I’m still battling this one.)

While I’ve been navigating the hassles of our health insurance system, I can’t help but think about how fortunate I am to be able to deal with this frustration.  I consider myself to be well-educated (read: I know how to use health insurance lingo), squarely in the middle class (read: if I absolutely had to, I could pay for the out-of-pocket costs), and my workplace gives me the flexibility to spend far too much time on the phone with the customer service agents at my health insurance company since, of course, they’re only open during regular business hours.

And then of course, since I am me, I think about how my experience relates to my work.  At Michigan’s Children, we focus on strategies that reduce disparities in child outcomes.  That means we’re talking about low-income families and families of color who may not understand the health insurance lingo nor have flexibility during working hours to deal with 9-5 frustrations.  When a system is built to work against the average citizen (read: me), it can only create larger barriers for the most challenged children and families.

My health insurance frustrations also make me thankful that the Governor is proposing to take advantage of the Affordable Care Act to expand Medicaid for low-income adults up to 133% of the federal poverty line, despite criticisms from his colleagues in the Legislature.  Sure, more people in Michigan will have to struggle with navigating Medicaid, just like I’ve been struggling for the past couple of days.  But in the end, being uninsured is far worse than dealing with the hassles of health insurance, and this expansion is a much better deal for Medicaid recipients and taxpayers alike.  And for adults of child-bearing age, having access to adequate health care is crucial to ensuring a healthy planned pregnancy and that all babies are born healthy – the first steps in a P-20 education system.

Governor Snyder’s proposed Medicaid expansion is one step towards improving outcomes for Michigan’s most struggling families.  Expanding access to preschool is another strategy towards reducing the achievement gap.  As a state, we must also focus on equity-promoting strategies across the P-20 continuum to truly reduce disparities in child and family outcomes.  These include strategies that support families with young children from birth through age three, and ensuring that students have access to the supports they need to succeed in school like high quality out-of-school opportunities.  We must focus on reducing disparities across the entire continuum, from cradle to career.

Learn more about the Governor’s budget and whether it’s promoting equity to ensure that all Michigan children can thrive.

-Mina Hong

We Shouldn’t Treat Preschool Like Valentine’s Day

Ahh Valentine’s Day.  The day of love.  The day when flower shops, candy shops, and restaurants do remarkably well.  But I must admit I’m not a big fan of Valentine’s Day.  Sure, I love reminding my loved ones how much I care about them on this day, but I also find it rather silly to single out one day a year that we express our love and appreciation for our loved ones who stand by us every day.  I have similar feelings about singling out four-year-old preschool in budget and program conversations about improving school readiness, and here’s why.

In President Obama’s State of the Union address on Tuesday, he called for universal access to preschool, and anticipated details of this plan include expansion to high quality early learning programs that span the birth to five continuum.  This comes on the heels of Governor Snyder’s state budget presentation for fiscal year 2014 that calls for a substantial expansion for the Great Start Readiness Preschool program (GSRP) – Michigan’s preschool program for four-year-olds at-risk of starting school behind.  (Learn more about what the Governor’s budget means for young children in our Budget Basics report).

We know access to high quality preschool is an evidence-based strategy towards reducing an achievement gap – a gap that begins early and can build over time without the appropriate prevention and intervention strategies.  GSRP has proven to reduce disparities in student achievement including reducing the readiness gap at kindergarten, improving reading proficiency for third graders (a critical benchmark for school success), and getting more young people to their high school graduations.  And in fact, children of color who participated in GSRP were three times more likely to graduate high school on-time than children of color who did not attend GSRP – proving its effectiveness in reducing disparities.

I am a huge supporter of preschool for four-year-olds, and I also think that focusing significant investment only towards four-year-olds is short-sighted.  Just like expressing love should be about more than one-day, we know that early childhood education should be about more than support for a single year.  While GSRP is geared towards four-year-olds, we know that disparities in cognitive development emerge in babies as young as nine months of age.  And for the babies and toddlers who struggled the most, one year of preschool is a huge help towards preparing them for kindergarten but it may not be quite enough to offset the challenges they faced early in life.  Even Governor Snyder acknowledges that education must focus on the entire P-20 continuum – that begins prenatally not at four-years-old – though he does not reflect this in his budget.

To lay the best foundation to build a successful education career and to reduce achievement gaps, we must begin at birth and provide support to the most challenged young families.  I applaud President Obama’s efforts to expand access to not just four-year-old preschool but also Early Head Start, quality child care, and evidence-based home visiting.  Perhaps as we advocate to ensure that the GSPR expansion stays in the final FY2014 state budget, we should also talk about some level of support for Michigan’s youngest learners – children from birth through age three – to prevent early disparities.  And perhaps as we discuss President Obama’s early childhood focus with our Congressional folks, we should discuss how any plan to offset the sequester must safeguard the federal programs that currently support infants and toddlers like the Child Care and Development Block Grant and Early Head Start.  Here at Michigan’s Children, we love preschool, and we also know that early childhood education begins before four-years of age.

-Mina Hong

Investing to Expand Minds and Opportunities in Michigan

Despite the crushing pressure of the fiscal cliff and the federal economy, I came back from Washington, DC last Thursday after spending several days with some Michigan colleagues and colleagues from around the country at the Afterschool Alliance National Network meeting feeling quite proud of my Michigan Congressional Delegation.

Some members of our delegation have been, of course, champions building extended learning opportunity (before- and after-school, summer learning, other opportunities outside the traditional school day) over their entire political careers.  Some are just beginning their careers in Washington and are thinking strategically about how support of extended learning may fit into their own political legacies.  And some, who are not always supportive of public spending, were indeed intrigued by the way that the largest federal investment in afterschool, the 21st Century Community Learning Centers, maximizes federal investment by encouraging innovative and targeted partnerships geared toward the needs and strengths of each local community. These partnerships have demonstrated impact on the educational and life success of young people; provide support for families; and build stronger communities.

The evidence is crystal clear that high quality afterschool and summer programs accelerate student achievement, particularly for those most at risk of school failure – closing the achievement gap.  In case there was any doubt, the Afterschool Alliance has brought together literally decades of research that brings together best practices and the impact of those practices in a new compendium, Expanding Minds and Opportunities:  Leveraging the Power of Afterschool and Summer Learning for Student Success.

Unfortunately, upon my return to Lansing, I was not so proud of the way that the Governor has again left off his priority list, as evidenced by the FY14 budget release last week, investment in one of the most powerful tools toward increased educational achievement and equity at his disposal – afterschool.  While I am extremely excited about the impact of the kinds of investments to our early childhood system he is proposing, these investments early will fail to reap all of the successes that they could without continued, targeted investment intended to build equity in outcomes throughout children’s educational careers.

Michigan’s Children will once again be working hard over the next months to ensure that we reinstate funding for extended learning opportunities – once funded at $16 million through the state budget.  Federal investment is not enough; we need to make this equity strategy a priority in our own budget as well, serving to make a dent in the kind of investment necessary to provide opportunities for all who need them.  In addition, any cuts to the Child Care subsidy Program, 40% of which supports elementary school participation in before- and after-school opportunities, should be taken with caution.

Now the Legislature has their chance to build Michigan’s investment in extended learning opportunities.  Join us in making sure that they do just that.

-Michele Corey

Will We Let Michigan Fall Off the Next Cliff?

Folks in Michigan are anxiously awaiting the release of the Governor’s budget on Thursday, with many hot issues already making the news in anticipation of the its release – a sizable increase in early childhood education funding, expansion of Medicaid to cover more low-income children and families, or continued efforts around education reform.  While the buzz in Lansing is all about the Governor’s upcoming budget, it’s important to realize that everything that will be determined by the Governor and Legislature regarding state priorities is completely dependent on the federal budget.

Michigan’s Children’s latest Budget Basics publication takes a closer look at just how reliant critical programs in Michigan are on federal funding.  In the current state fiscal year, which began on October 1, 2012 and goes to September 30, 2013, over 40 percent of Michigan’s entire state budget is supported by federal sources.  However, a significantly higher reliance on federal funding supports budgets that serve Michigan children, youth and families – particularly those most challenged by their circumstances.  Specifically, federal funds support:

  • two-thirds of the Michigan Department of Community Health (DCH) budget,
  • three-quarters of the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) budget (note: this does not include the School Aid budget), and
  • four-fifths of the Michigan Department of Human Services (DHS) budget.

Even more important to note is that these federal resources support Michigan’s efforts to address huge disparities in child and family outcomes – disparities that begin early in a child’s life and can continue to grow if not recognized and addressed.  Federal funds pay for equity promoting programs like Medicaid and school and community-based health services through DCH, nutrition programs and child abuse and neglect prevention efforts through DHS, and child care assistance and support for low-income and special needs students through MDE.  All of these programs work to reduce disparities in outcomes, and many could have an even greater impact if funded at levels that ensure program fidelity.

Unfortunately, the federal budget, like Michigan’s budget, doesn’t provide enough resource to ensure access to high quality programs for the most struggling children and families who would benefit from them.  This is evident by the latest Kids Count Data that show that our children continue to struggle and that disparities persist.  At the same time that we will be attempting to address our growing child poverty, increases in child maltreatment, and lack of progress on educational achievement; Michigan will surely be facing some cuts in federal support as a result of the second pending federal fiscal cliff.  The only question is, by how much?

Perhaps as we in Michigan prepare for the exciting budget debates that will soon begin in Lansing, we should also consider the implications of the federal budget and how deficit-reducing efforts may further increase the disparities that we already see in child and family outcomes.  And while we’re considering those implications, we may want to pass on our best thoughts on how to address the federal budget to Congress in a balanced way.

-Mina Hong

* The next fiscal cliff is a combination of the pending sequester as well as the expiration of the continuing resolution that is currently funding the federal government through March 27, 2013.  Congress still must address a balanced approach to offset sequestration and pass a federal budget through the remainder of the federal fiscal year (which happens to be the same fiscal year as Michigan’s).  More information about the federal budget is available on our website.

Making Sure That Kids Count More in 2013

The Michigan League for Public Policy released the Michigan Kids Count Databook 2012, which again, like every year for the last two decades, illustrates just how children, youth and families are doing throughout Michigan.  This county-by-county report allows us to see how our communities are faring on economic well-being, health, safety and education and looks at how all of those areas together impact success.

This is great timing.  The Legislature is convening committees and leaders are making pronouncements about where their time will be prioritized over this session.  The Governor will be releasing his budget proposal in the next couple of weeks, where he’ll set his priority investments in our state.

As we know, good public policymaking can contribute positively to well-being, inadequate or misguided public policymaking also impacts well-being.  The findings in the Data Book once again point to the need for real commitment to supporting programs that lead to successful children, youth and families in Michigan – commitment that we have not seen at the state level in recent years.  In 2013, we are looking to policymakers for the following:

  1. Address the growing poverty faced by Michigan families and communities by reinstating the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) to 2012 levels;
  2. Address the growing shares of children who are confirmed victims of child abuse and neglect by increasing investment for family support services that reach families with infants and toddlers – those most likely to be impacted;
  3. Ensure continued improvement in 4th grade reading success by improving family access to quality early learning programs and strengthening connections between early childhood and the early elementary school years;
  4. Enable higher high school graduation rates by expanding access to alternative education opportunities that utilize a fifth or sixth year of high school and connect a high school credential to community college credits or real-world work experience.

Kids Count is a great tool to help encourage our policymakers to champion issues that are crucial for Michigan’s success.  Use it to insist that policy decisions strengthen our ability to ensure that ALL children can thrive in school, the workplace, and in life.

-Michele Corey

The annual Data Book is released by the Kids Count in Michigan project. It is a collaboration between the Michigan League for Public Policy (formerly the Michigan League for Human Services), which researches and writes the report, and Michigan’s Children, which works with advocates statewide to disseminate the findings. Both are nonpartisan, nonprofit advocacy organizations concerned about the well-being of children and their families.

State of the Polarized State

Last night, Governor Snyder presented his third State of the State address to a Legislature that is still recovering from a bitterly divisive lame duck session.  The Governor attempted to provide some hope for reconciliation to get things done in a bipartisan fashion in 2013 by saying in his address “I appreciate that  people have different perspectives … I’m going to work hard to find common ground where we can work together and I hope all of you join me in doing the same thing.”  But, the partisan ways of lame duck haunted the State Capitol in last night’s address.  In a time when too many Michigan children and families continue to struggle, the Governor and legislative leadership must take steps to move past the polarization to build effective public policies for a better Michigan future.

So what did we hear in Governor Snyder’s State of the State?  Last week, we laid out what we hoped to hear in his State of the State and were disappointed that none of the items were addressed, nor did the Governor lay out any real details pertaining to the needs of children and families.  One silver lining was his mention to expand funding for Michigan’s Great Start Readiness preschool program to eventually ensure that all children who are eligible for the program can access it.  This program has proven to reduce the school readiness gap that affects too many children entering kindergarten and can help reduce the achievement gap throughout a student’s K-12 experience.  But, Governor Snyder did not discuss how this expansion would be funded nor did he discuss the role that early childhood education beginning at birth can play in reducing the achievement gap as well as other strategies throughout K-12.

The Governor must work with both our Republican and Democratic leaders to identify a feasible way to pay for an expansion of early childhood education programming that doesn’t jeopardize other important funding streams.  Both sides of the aisle must come together to discuss what Michigan needs to address the academic achievement gap in an effective way that better prepares Michigan’s future workforce.  Our legislators must have some honest conversations about how the partisanship of the lame duck session has built significant distrust among the legislature and begin to find ways to rebuild that trust for the betterment of Michiganians.

Policymakers must build on the fact that caring about children is universal.  This means continuing to invest in school readiness programs for young children from birth to age five; expanding support for effective strategies, like increasing access to before- and after-school programming, that move more young people to a high school credential; and continuing to ensure that education reform conversations focus on evidence-based best practices to reduce the achievement gap.

The Governor and legislative leaders must work together in 2013 to ensure that public policy decisions benefit Michigan children and Michigan’s future.

-Mina Hong

It’s All About Relationships

The elections are long over and the new Michigan Legislature was sworn into office last week.  The new legislature has quite a hefty task ahead of them with many unfinished business left from the previous legislative session and new challenges surely to arise.  If you haven’t already, now is the time to begin forming relationships with your elected officials.  Now is the time to begin holding newly elected officials accountable for the promises they made while campaigning to strengthen public policies on behalf of Michigan children and families.  And if children and families weren’t a top priority during their campaign, now is the time to begin educating newly elected officials of why they should be prioritizing children – particularly those from struggling backgrounds – to ensure that Michigan’s future is a bright one.

The best way to create change now is to strengthen your relationship with those who represent you.  Legislators are people, just like you and me, and are more inclined to listen to people they already know and trust.  Maybe you attended a town hall meeting during their campaign and have already begun to build that relationship.  Or maybe your representative is a neighbor you’ve known for years.  Or maybe your representative isn’t the person you voted for.  Regardless, here are a few easy ways to get engaged with members of the new legislature to build or strengthen your relationship with them so that when the time comes, the relationship is already established so that you can more effectively create change.

  • Congratulate them using mail, email, or social media.
  • Sign-up for their electronic newsletters to keep up-to-date on the issues at hand.
  • Attend their local coffee hours to get to know them and talk to them about the issues that matter to you.
  • Visit their office to chat with them or their staff about the issues that matter to you.
  • Be a resource to your elected official and give them your expert perspective on issues. You ARE an expert.  If you are a parent, you know about the struggles of expensive child care, the importance of a great teacher, or the challenges with navigating the health care system.  If you provide direct services, you see the struggles that the children and families you serve face on a day-to-day basis.  Share your stories and experiences with your elected officials and better yet, offer solutions that would help your family and your community deal with these issues.

Not sure who represents you?  Find out on the Michigan House of Representatives website; and while there, be sure to sign-up for your legislator’s email updates.

-Mina Hong

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