Speaking For Kids

Let’s Learn from President Obama’s Early Learning Plan

Tomorrow, President Obama is expected to reveal his budget recommendation for federal fiscal year 2014, which begins October 1, 2013 and ends September 30, 2014.  With his budget proposal is expected more details on his early education plan – a plan that early childhood advocates have been touting since his State of the Union Address in February.  The details that we do know about his early childhood plan include:

  • a new federal-state partnership to expand prek to all middle- and low-income four-year-olds,
  • an Early Head Start–child care partnership to expand access to early learning for children before four-years of age, and
  • expanding evidence-based, voluntary home visiting programs.

While most folks know that the Congressional divide makes it difficult for President Obama’s early childhood plan to gain any real traction, there is some real learning that states can take away from his plan.

First, to get all children school-ready, efforts must begin before kindergarten and even before preschool.  The President has laid out a clear path that not only addresses expansion of preschool for four-year-olds but also a plan that support the nation’s youngest learners – children prenatally through age three.  This is evidenced by his support to expand home visiting and programs targeting infants and toddlers through Early Head Start and high quality child care.  Here in Michigan, we’ve made great strides towards expanding preschool for four-year-olds at-risk of being underprepared for kindergarten but have struggled to keep our other early learning programs up to par.  While we’ve made progress by requiring all state funding to support only evidence-based home visiting programs, these programs continue to serve only a small fraction of all eligible families.  And our child care program continues to be one of the worst among the Great Lakes states and in the nation.  To see maximum benefits from the state’s efforts to expand the Great Start Readiness preschool program, increasing access to other high quality early learning programs before four-years of age is critical.

Additionally, President Obama’s early learning plan has been promoted by both U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius.  This inter-departmental coordination and partnership to move the dime on children’s issues is a huge step in the right direction.  As Secretary Duncan put it, “it’s not too often that you find two government departments with overlapping responsibilities trying to work together hand-in-hand.” Luckily in Michigan, we are perfectly set-up to work across departments to tackle the multiple issues that children and families face.  First, Michigan has the Michigan Department of Education – Office of Great Start whose goals don’t solely focus on educational outcomes but also health and development, since these are critical components to ensure that children can succeed in school.  Additionally, Governor Snyder created the “People Executive Group” to coordinate people issues across state departments including the Michigan Department of Community Health, Department of Human Services, Department of Education, and Department of Civil Rights.  Both of these entities provide avenues to increase inter-departmental coordination and partnership to realize feasible strategies to address Michigan’s unacceptable outcomes for the most challenged children – children of color and children from low-income families.  We know that one sector or one department alone can’t turn the tide for children and families nor should they be solely responsible for doing so.  This type of coordination across education, health and human services is already happening in some local communities in Michigan, but state-level leadership to coordinate across departments can set an example for communities across the state.

On Wednesday, I look forward to hearing more about President Obama’s budget plans to support early learning, and hope that inter-departmental coordination will continue to be a part of his early learning plan.  Perhaps Michigan can take a cue from the federal government and follow in their footsteps.

Learn more about President Obama’s early learning plan on the Michigan Sandbox Party website.

-Mina Hong

Authority and Evidence

Last week, the Michigan House of Representatives passed a bill to expand the Educational Achievement Authority beyond the city of Detroit.  This is the most recent of a long line of conversations that educators, legislators and others have had over the years trying to build a path for struggling students, schools and communities to success.

Turning around the educational circumstances of our state does require that we focus some attention on the worst performers.  It is important that we do put additional resources, time and attention to those with the farthest to go – that is what it takes to improve equity in outcomes.  It is also important that we make sure that our efforts are steeped in what the research tells us will improve the educational circumstances of young people in our state.

Will shifts in who controls the decision-making for these students, schools and communities make a difference?  Perhaps.  Will shifts in control absent of other investment and strategy make a lasting difference?  Not on your life.  At the same time that the EAA conversation has been going on, we are facing more than a decade of state disinvestment and a failure to compensate for some particularly disastrous disinvestment from the federal government.  While philanthropic investment is certainly a critical piece, there is no consistent community opportunity to raise funds to compensate for lost public sector resource.

As the Senate takes up this legislation, we urge them to consider the following:

We know that young people face barriers to educational success that one system alone can’t solve – not the education system alone, not communities alone, and certainly not individual school buildings alone.  The Senate could include more direction about how resources to support extended learning, school-based health, positive behavior, and other services that have proven to increase student success would be targeted toward all schools facing restructuring demands.

Current actions that have diminished services for at-risk young people through cuts in the state budget are counter-productive to meaningful reform.  Disinvestment in the very communities the EAA legislation is attempting to serve does not promote innovation, partnership and reform.  Evidence-based support programs will need to be expanded in order to see real, sustainable improvement in school success for those most challenged schools, communities and young people.

Legislators can’t decouple the EAA conversation with the budget discussions in the Capitol over the next several months.  The path to success for the lowest performing students, schools and communities is the same as it has always been:  invest in proven strategies from cradle to career.

It is likely that the Senate Education Committee will take up this legislation quickly after returning from spring break.  Contact your Senators and let them know what you know to be true to increase the success of kids and schools; let them know that there are successful programs around the state that are assisting in this effort already and that those programs need to be available to more struggling young people and their parents.

At the same time, the Legislature continues to debate funding levels for critical programs that support educational success.  Those programs exist within the School Aid and Department of Education budgets, but they also exist within human services, health, workforce and higher education.  Let your Senators and Representatives know that without other investment, the EAA will not be able to show the kind of gains necessary for our state.

Learn more about the EAA legislation and what’s left undone in our latest Issues for Michigan’s Children publication.  To keep posted on the state budget process, visit our Budget Basics library.

-Michele Corey

Steps Forward, Steps Backward on Michigan’s Responsibility

As we debate public responsibility for many things, there cannot be any argument about our public responsibility for the children who we have removed from their families and placed in the care of the state.  In 2008, a Federal court oversaw a settlement agreement between the Michigan Department of Human Services (DHS) and a national children’s rights group who asserted that we were not fulfilling our end of this bargain with children and families involved in our child protective services system.  This month, the sixth settlement progress report was released, assessing efforts made over the first six months of 2012.

We need to commend DHS for progress made, as cited in the federal monitors’ report:

  • Increased placements with relative guardians.  Under pressure to improve our record for permanent placements for children and youth removed from their families, DHS has stepped up their use of guardianship.  In fact, 70% of the children permanently placed out of foster care were placed under guardianship with relatives.  We know from research that when kids are removed, placement with relatives is generally less traumatic and more successful than placement with non-relatives.
  • Supporting youth “aging out” of foster care:   Continuing earlier practice, DHS committed to maintaining Medicaid coverage to youth after leaving foster care as independent – over 97% of the eligible youth were covered after their foster care case was terminated.  In addition, Michigan Youth Opportunity Initiative (MYOI) programs continue to operate in counties around the state, funded and supported by the Jim Casey Foundation and other partners.  Though MYOI results in the three counties reviewed by the monitors were mixed, efforts to coordinate services and increase skill sets for older foster youth are essential.  The work of these initiatives is to provide information, training and supportive services related to education, employment, housing, physical and mental health, permanency, and social and community engagement.  Though MYOI results in the three counties were mixed, efforts to coordinate services and increase skill sets for older foster youth are essential.

Unfortunately, monitors noted that Michigan did not improve on the following crucial pieces:

  • Timeliness of reunification.   Often the best option for kids is placement back into the family after services are provided.  Michigan fell behind other states when it came to timeliness of reunification with the family following removal from home.
  • Length of stay in foster care.  Michigan kids stay an average of 11 months in foster care, compared to the national average of less than 8 months.
  • Opportunities for contact.  For children in foster care, there are few elements more critical than visits between caseworker and child, caseworker and parent, and child and their parents.  Michigan failed to meet agreed upon standards pertaining to frequency of these visits.
  • Availability of out-of-home placement options.  Michigan is lagging in licensing relative homes for placement, and is having difficulty meeting the standard of no more than three children placed in any single foster home.

The goal of the Department of Human Services, also demanded through the lawsuit settlement is to quickly connect families to services following a child’s removal to strengthen connections that result in either a child’s timely return home or safe placement as soon as possible.   Support for families must come from various community-based sources – sources whose support from state resources has been cut almost entirely over the last ten years.  In addition, the fact remains that the child welfare system continues to serve a disproportionate share of children from families living in poorer communities and from families of color.

According to the latest Kids Count in Michigan Databook, confirmed victims of child abuse or neglect rose by nearly 30% between 2005 and 2011, and over 80% of those cases involved neglect.  For families who struggle the most to provide a safe and healthy home environment for their children, the need for early prevention programs has never been more critical.  The lack of adequate funding for home visiting and other family support programming and behavioral health services for adults and children, as well as the dismantling of basic financial support programs like food, cash and child care assistance runs contrary to what is necessary to improve outcomes in the child welfare system.

Fueled by the lawsuit, private philanthropic resources, and good administrative decision-making, DHS has made positive steps towards improving child protection services; but without adequate funding, Michigan cannot ensure that all families have the supports they need to provide a safe and healthy home environment for their children.  The Governor did increase resource in his budget recommendation for DHS staffing, but did not increase investments in other areas of that budget.  The Legislature went on spring break without giving us a glimpse of what they are planning for DHS funding, but they have the opportunity when they return to promote investments that have proven track records in halting child maltreatment, particularly for those families most challenged by their circumstances.

To learn more about DHS’s progress towards improving the child welfare system, visit the DHS website.

To keep posted on the state budget process, see Michigan’s Children’s Budget Basics.

-William Long

William is the former Interim President & CEO of Michigan’s Children, former Executive Director of the Michigan Federation for Children & Families, and current Eaton County DHS Board member.

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