Speaking for Kids

Will We Let Michigan Fall Off the Cliff?

The elections now seem like a distant past as talk of the federal “fiscal cliff” has taken over the media.  While the political showdown in Washington, D.C. may seem like typical hoopla, folks in Michigan should care about the looming fiscal cliff.  Why, you ask?

This so-called fiscal cliff would result in a significant increase in taxes you will pay while at the same time reducing spending for critical children and family programs (and other non-entitlement programs) through automatic sequestration – aka across the board cuts to federal programs.  While neither Republicans nor Democrats want to see the U.S. go over the fiscal cliff, the two parties have different perspectives on how to battle the expiring tax cuts while cutting spending at the same time.  So why does this matter to Michigan children and families?

We know that Michigan families have been harder hit by the recession than the rest of the country with the percent of Michigan children living in poverty having increased by 64% since 2000.  Now, nearly one out of four Michigan children live in poverty and the statistics are worse for children of color.  The connection to the federal fiscal cliff?  So many programs that protect child well-being during times of hardship will be jeopardized, and in fact, many of these programs are likely to see cuts.  The question that will be debated is by how much?

It’s also important to realize just how reliant Michigan is on federal funding.  In the current fiscal year, federal dollars support 41% of Michigan’s total state budget.  For the Michigan Department of Community Health and Department of Human Services budgets – departments that support Michigan’s most struggling children and families – federal dollars support 64% and 82% of these budgets respectively.  While Michigan’s education system is less reliant on the federal budget, federal funding supports most of the education programs that work to reduce the achievement gap – an achievement gap that begins early and grows over time.

Some of the federally funded programs that may see significant funding cuts if a balanced approach isn’t taken to tackle the fiscal cliff including the following.

  • The Maternal and Child Health Block Grant and Community Health Centers both fund a large percent of Michigan’s preventive health programs for children and families.
  • LIHEAP and the Community Services Block Grant support low-income families with basic needs like heating, housing, and nutrition.
  • Head Start, Early Head Start and the Child Care and Development Block Grant promote school readiness while supporting struggling families.
  • 21st Century Community Learning Centers and Title I target school districts with high percentages of students at-risk of school failure by supporting equity promoting education programs like high quality after school programming and high school dropout prevention efforts.
  • The Workforce Investment Act for Youth engages disconnected young people to education and workforce opportunities.

All of these programs are critical in Michigan and all are in jeopardy if the federal deficit reducing solution isn’t fair and balanced.  Talking to the people who represent your interests in Washington, DC about the importance of these programs to you, your families and your communities is essential.  You can find out who your Congressperson is, as well as contact information for members of Congress and the U.S. Senate, on our website.

-Mina Hong

The Work Has Just Begun

While some states are continuing to count their final ballots, here in Michigan, we already know who will be representing us at the federal, state, and local levels.  Hopefully you took the first step of learning what was on your ballot, researched the candidates and proposals, and waited in line and cast your vote on Tuesday.  But, that’s only the first step.  Now is the most opportune time to talk to your newly elected officials (even those incumbents who are continuing to represent you) about the issues that matter to you.  Now is the time that policy advocacy can make the biggest difference.

Why is that, you ask?  Because the first and most critical component of getting engaged is building relationships.  You know that you’re more likely to lend $5 to someone you know and trust rather than a stranger.  When it comes to policymakers, the same is true.  Over the next several months, your legislators will be hosting coffee hours, attending meet and greets, and doing everything they can to further understand the needs of their constituents.  This is the time to introduce yourself, show them around your program, do some basic education on the children and family issues that matter the most to you and your community.  No need to make the big ask, just begin to build the relationship and have them understand how and why you can be a resource to them.  And if you already have a relationship with your elected officials, congratulate them and reiterate that you are a resource.  If they don’t hear from you, how else will they know all of those critical things that you know that could really help them make the right decisions?

  • They will be deciding how to invest our tax dollars.  You can help them understand where these investments make the most difference, particularly for kids of color and from low-income families.
  • They will continue to explore the needs of Michigan families and continue to work to strengthen the economy.  You can help them understand what it takes for a struggling family to provide basic needs like food and housing for their children.
  • They will be changing the way that education is funded and structured.  You can help them understand that to reduce the academic achievement gap, children’s education must begin before birth and continue through to their successful career.
  • They will be changing how health care is provided in Michigan and must focus on reducing costly disparate health outcomes.  You can help them understand what it takes to make sure that pregnant women, babies, children, youth and their families stay healthy and what a difference their health makes to other life success.

Though the elections are over, our Vote for Michigan’s children webpage has resources you can use to assist in educating your legislators.  There, you’ll find some quick facts about the status of children in Michigan, templates you can use to contact your newly elected policymakers, and issue briefs on specific children’s issues.  Act now, and continue to act!

-Michele Corey

Will Your Vote Improve Educational Equity?

Last week, an AnnArbor.com news article highlighted the successes of Ypsilanti Public Schools with using the fifth and sixth years of high school to improve their high school completion rate.  As a Washtenaw County Resident, I was proud to see Ypsilanti Public Schools utilizing a strategy that has shown to reduce high school achievement gaps between white students and students of color – a strategy aligned with Michigan’s Children’s educational equity priorities.  And related to educational achievement outcomes, on November 6th, Ypsilanti and Willow Run residents will see a proposal on their ballot to consolidate the two school districts that, if passed, would lead to a re-envisioning of public education.

What does consolidation have to do with educational equity?  While the ins and outs of the consolidation in terms of financial implication is beyond Michigan’s Children’s purview, the notion of re-envisioning the current education system is one that we can get on board with.  These particular consolidated district plans would incorporate a cradle-to-career approach to education (similar to Michigan’s Children’s cradle-to-career strategy) that would redefine the notion that public education is a K-12 system that falls within the school walls.  The ballot proposal is one way of many that citizens from all over Michigan can get engaged in this re-envisioning conversation.

The Michigan Department of Education is already taking steps to expand beyond the K-12 tradition.  The Office of Great Start was established last year to bridge the gap between early childhood education and K-12 and to align the state’s early learning and development investments to increase school readiness and early literacy.  Research shows that investing in high quality early childhood programs that target young kids most at-risk of being unprepared for kindergarten is critical to reducing the educational achievement gap – a gap that can be traced to children as young as nine months of age.

But, we know that Michigan’s current level of early childhood investment does not reach all of the children who could benefit from high quality early learning programs, so efforts must be made to continue to focus on improving educational outcomes for all kids in K-12.  The State of Michigan’s ESEA Waiver (also known as the No Child Left Behind waiver) focuses on reducing gaps in all schools – between white students and students of color, students from upper-class families and those from low-income families, and even students that are highly proficient versus under-proficient regardless of demographics. In a nutshell, the state’s waiver focuses on reducing equity gaps – a strategy that cannot be done within the traditional K-12 system alone.

This takes me back to the beginning of my blog – a cradle-to-career education strategy much include components that take advantage of equity-promoting strategies like high quality early learning opportunities, access to before- and after-school programs that promote learning beyond the traditional school day, use of the 5th and 6th years of high school like in Ypsilanti Public Schools to increase high school graduation rates, and alternative education programs that may utilize online learning and/or link young people to college prep and workforce development opportunities.  Residents of Ypsilanti and Willow Run have a serious decision to make on November 6th that may lead to some of these strategies.  The rest of us do as well – how are the individuals we are electing into office going to ensure that Michigan is appropriately educating ALL of our children?

-Mina Hong

Michigan Policymakers in 2013 MUST do Better

Last week, our national partners at First Focus released a report in partnership with Save the Children called America’s Report Card 2012: Children in the U.S. that gave a clear picture on the well-being of children in the U.S.  To put it bluntly, we’re not doing well.  The report gave an overall grade of a C- based on five “subjects” – economic security, early childhood, K-12 education, permanency & stability, and health & safety.  And we know that in our home state, Michigan children are faring just as poorly, if not worse.  In fact, according to the national 2012 Kids Count Data Book from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Michigan’s overall ranking among other states was 32nd.  Are we going to allow Michigan to be in the bottom half of the states in a C- country?  Or are we going to demand action by ourselves and our decision-makers to not let that stand?

Our latest Issue Brief – Where Michigan Children Stand This Election Season – compares America’s Report Card 2012: Children in the U.S. with Michigan’s ranking in the national Kids Count Data Book to give us a clear picture.  As a state, we MUST do better.

To give you a snapshot:

  • Economic Security:  U.S. Grade: D/ Michigan’s Rank: 36th
  • Early Childhood:  U.S. Grade: C/Michigan’s Rank:  Tied for 24th in Preschool Access
  • K-12 Education:  U.S. Grade: C/Michigan’s Rank:  33rd
  • Permanency & Stability:  U.S. Grade: D/ Michigan’s Rank: Tied for 38th for Confirmed Child Maltreatment
  • Health & Safety:  U.S. Grade: C+/Michigan’s Rank:  22nd

What does this all mean during an election season? The candidates that we elect will make an impact on child well-being, positively or negatively.  The public policies and budget decisions they make must focus on improving the well-being for Michigan children who are most challenged by their circumstance.  Children of color and children from low-income families face systemic barriers that do little to promote good health, school readiness, and academic achievement.  During this election year, it is critical that candidates who support investments in children are elected into office and we continue to hold those elected officials accountable for helping children and families succeed.  America’s Report Card has shown us that as a nation, we’re not doing well by our children.  And yet again, the news for Michigan is even more grim.

Elections provide a unique opportunity to change that course, but only if we are all engaged.  We can do better and we must expect better from those who make decisions about public programming on our behalf.  Take advantage of this opportunity to raise your voice for children, youth and families.

-Michele Corey

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

Early Childhood Development = Workforce Development

As discussed a few weeks ago on our blog, a coalition of 100 business leaders organized by the Children’s Leadership Council of Michigan (CLCM) called for significantly greater investment in early childhood education, linking the connection between access to high quality early education and the state’s economy.  The CLCM’s two early childhood policy planks are to expand access to the Great Start Readiness Program – Michigan’s preschool program for four-year-olds at-risk of school failure – to all kids who are eligible for GSRP, and to assure the healthy growth of children from birth through age three.

The timing of the business leaders’ call to action couldn’t be better.

Last week, the HighScope Educational Research Foundation and the Michigan Department of Education released its evaluation of GSRP from 1995-2011 that includes high school graduation and grade retention outcomes for students who participated in GSRP.  The 2011 evaluation results make the case for why GSRP works.  It found that more GSRP students graduated on time from high school than non-GSRP participants and even more telling, that more GSRP students of color graduated on time from high school than non-GSRP participants.  Access to high quality preschool reduces the high school completion gap that is seen across our state.   This evaluation comes after the state Legislature finalized the state budget for 2012-2013 which includes a $5 million increase for GSRP.

And next week, the Committee for Economic Development and ReadyNation will be in Detroit to release their latest report “Unfinished Business: Continued Investment in Child Care and Early Education is Critical to Business and America’s Future”.  Business leaders across the nation are taking a stand on the importance of high quality early care and education, knowing that it’s more cost-effective to do right by kids from the very beginning rather than investing in remediation later down the road.  And they recognize that Michigan is a key state where dedication and investment to workforce development starting in early childhood can show huge gains as the state transforms its economy.

As Michigan residents, it is critical for us to recognize this momentum that is occurring in our state.  As we enter the thick of campaign season, we must be mindful of who we elect into office and whether they too, will follow in the footsteps of business leaders across our state and our nation.  Are candidates talking about the importance of high quality early education?  Do they recognize the connection between access to high quality early learning programs and Michigan’s economy?  Will they “put their money where their mouth is” when they are negotiating the state budget next year by listening to the business leaders’ call to action to significantly increase funding for early childhood programming in our state?

It is imperative that we take advantage of this opportune time – the election season – to ensure that individuals we put into office to represent us understand our priorities.  Is expanding access to high quality early education one of them?

-Mina Hong

Babies Today, Business Leaders Tomorrow

Last week, the Children’s Leadership Council of Michigan (CLCM) released their early childhood business plan at the annual Mackinac Policy Conference.  And though the CLCM didn’t explain how their business plan would be funded– whether from private investments or from targeted public revenue sources – a statement from business leaders calling for significantly increased investment in early childhood education for the betterment of Michigan’s future workforce is a big deal.  So what exactly would an early childhood business plan mean for children and families in Michigan?

The CLCM is a group of business leaders from across Michigan who are committed to ensuring that all children arrive at school healthy and ready to learn.  Since its founding, the CLCM has advocated for expanded resources so that all young children eligible for Michigan’s Great Start Readiness Program (GSRP) – the state’s preschool program for four-year-olds at-risk of school failure – can access the program.  Currently, 38,000 four-year-olds eligible for GSRP aren’t able to access the program due to limited state funds.

Having business leaders call for fully funding GSRP is great news because we know that the program works.  The GSRP program has proven outcomes.  In addition to a high return on investment, high quality preschool programs like GSRP ensure that young children are ready for school, improve student achievement and ultimately contribute to higher high school graduation rates, all while narrowing the achievement gap.

BUT, four-year-old preschool alone is not enough.  The other half of the CLCM’s platform is to strengthen efforts to assure the healthy growth of children from birth through age three.  At Michigan’s Children, we know that laying strong foundations beginning at birth are essential to help young children prepare for school and to succeed in life.  When cognitive disparities emerge as young as nine months of age and continue to grow throughout life, taking advantage of the first three years of life when the brain is rapidly developing is critical to prevent these large racial, ethnic, and economic-related disparities.  And the business leaders who are part of the Leadership Council agree with this science.

Michigan’s Children continues to suggest that at least twenty percent of any new money for preschool be set-aside to serve infants, toddlers and their families.  Whether these new funds are from public or private sources, dedicating a portion of new funding to serve children from birth through age three would truly realize the P-20 education continuum.

Michigan’s Children applauds the early childhood business plan and will continue to work with the Children’s Leadership Council towards their goals to expand preschool and birth through three services to prepare a strong and diverse workforce for the future.  Growing preschool and birth through three programs concurrently will show the greatest gains in terms of healthy development, school readiness, and return on investment all while preventing and reducing the achievement gap and strengthening the workforce of tomorrow.

Learn more about Michigan’s Children’s early childhood priorities.

-Mina Hong

What a Difference Our Voices Make

This week, the Legislature finished their work on the fiscal year 2013 budget.  While it is still possible that funding for specific programs and initiatives, as well as language directing state departments in their implementation, could be vetoed by the Governor in his final budget approval, we can assume what has passed out of the Legislature is pretty close to what we’ll be working with beginning in October.

The state budget, as the single most powerful expression of the state’s priorities, is a tool for either improving equity or widening gaps.   Michigan’s Children advocates for many programs, initiatives and strategies during the budget process each year, and this year put some strategic focus on two items that prove critical to improving educational equity:

  1. supporting an expansion of funding for the state’s preschool program (GSRP) and ensuring that some of those dollars would be directed towards Michigan’s youngest children from birth through age three; and
  2. reinstating funding for extended learning opportunities (before- and after-school programs) that was once funded at $16 million through the state budget.

Staff worked with partners, local advocates, Legislators and their staff through each stage of the budget conversation to make sure that those investments were included or protected.  Countless community allies reached out to their Legislators to encourage them to lend their support.

Here’s the verdict:  voices are heard.   The Legislature chose to prioritize additional funding for pre-school programming allowing nearly 1,500 more children to be served in the next school year.  Even though language was not included in this budget to dedicate some of that new language for programs supporting younger children and their families, Legislators and staff have improved understanding and critical ground work was laid.  Another verdict:  as advocates always say, this is a marathon, not a sprit.

The Legislature also chose to prioritize extended learning beyond the school day by including $1 million for the kids who need it most, those in families whose income is below twice the poverty line.  While this was not the $5 million that was originally proposed by champions in the House of Representatives, nor is it even a fraction of the kind of investment necessary to provide opportunities for all who need them, but it is a victory – again, a marathon.

We thank the Legislature for valuing programs that improve educational equity in our state, and we (of course) ask that the Governor not utilize his line-item veto power to remove those investments before signing the appropriations bills into law.

These investments were made because advocates and Legislative champions persisted.  The verdict for this election season:  it matters who is elected to office.  That leads to the need for all of us to understand where our candidates stand on supporting strategies that lead to better and more equitable outcomes for kids and families all around this state.  After the best candidates are elected this fall because of our votes, we continue the marathon.

-Michele Corey

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