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

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