Speaking for Kids

Taking Advantage of Michigan’s Opportunity

One of the good news pieces in the Michigan 2011 Kids Count Data Book released last week is that the high school dropout rate in the state fell between 2007 (the first year that Michigan went to the new cohort system that tracks the diploma or GED status of individual young people through 4, 5 and 6 years of high school) and 2010, the most recent information available.  These improvements did not happen by chance.  They happened because of concerted and strategic partnership efforts by schools, districts, cities and towns, health departments, after-school programs, human service agencies and yes, state departments.  They happened because of private philanthropic investment.  They happened because the state overwhelmingly decided that everyone should be in high school until they reach credential.

They also happened because of fear – a broad acknowledgement that the economic and social consequences of dropping out are high and far-reaching.  Costs borne by the young people themselves, our schools, our communities and our state.  As we all know, young people lacking a high school diploma face a labor market that is becoming more and more difficult to successfully navigate.  And, young people without a basic education are less likely to have the maturity and skills needed to parent effectively or the resources to promote the well-being of the next generation.

Despite the fact that this decline in dropout has not resulted in a corresponding increase in “on-time” graduation rates, there is an ever growing group of over-age and under-credited young people who are still connected to school but need more time to finish.  This is an opportunity not to be missed.  Michigan law allows state payment for educating young people toward a high school diploma until they are 20 years old (under certain circumstances, until age 22), resourcing school and community efforts to continue programming through the 5th and sometimes 6th year of high school.

A healthy economy can’t survive our current inequity in graduation rates for low-income students and students of color, and additional time in high school improves equity.  Graduation rates increase for all groups after those additional years, but the fifth and sixth years of high school are particularly beneficial for low-income students and students of color.  This is great news.  We can take advantage of the opportunity to align State and Federal policy to better support young people who are not dropping out by providing multiple pathways to graduation that include more time and flexibility for students.

This year, as every year before, we hope that policymakers use their positions as caretakers of our tax dollars to invest smart from cradle-to-career.  High school dropout is a symptom of success and failures in systems serving kids and families throughout their lives.  Gaps in educational achievement and eventual high school completion between groups of young people experiencing different level of challenge can be traced to the earliest years of a child’s life and continue to grow through their educational careers.  Legislative and Administrative actions over the last several years have diminished services for young people.  Their state budget decisions have placed Federal funding at risk.  This is counter-productive to innovation, partnership building, meaningful education reform, and to a robust economy in Michigan.

There is leadership, however.  In 2008, the Superintendent of Public Instruction, Mike Flannigan, issued a challenge to schools in Michigan – to curb high school dropout by doing what works.  The Challenge is for all schools: elementary, middle and high, to identify 10-15 young people who aren’t doing so well with the early warning signs of attendance, behavior and coursework and change their trajectory.  The data suggests that schools involved in the Challenge, who intentionally work to prevent high school dropout by utilizing early warning signs and research-based interventions, have lower dropout rates than those who are not part of the Challenge.  This is heady stuff.  Again, opportunity abounds.  We know what works.

We should be encouraged by the possibility of graduating more young people from high school and make sure that the 2013 budget supports that work.

-Michele Corey

Repercussions of F.D.R.’s G.I. Bill

Last week in President Obama’s State of the Union address, he talked about how the G.I. Bill after World War II helped build a strong economy including a healthy middle class.  However, what President Obama failed to mention was the disparate effect the G.I. Bill had on White veterans compared to veterans of color.  The G.I. Bill essentially built a healthy middle class for White families but limited access to benefits that would have facilitated the rise of communities of color into that same middle class – a disparate effect that has not been corrected through subsequent policy decisions.

The G.I. Bill was open to all veterans, but its implementation proved to be discriminatory.  Congress had agreed that G.I. Bill supports – which included job training, college tuition, and home loans – could be administered locally.  Local implementers maintained the racially discriminatory actions that characterized local public and private sector behaviors prior to the war.  These included admissions policies that made it difficult for people of color to access higher education as well as rampant redlining practices by mortgage lenders.  Since discriminatory policies within housing and higher education were not addressed in the G.I. bill, many veterans of color were unable to access these benefits.  Thus, while the White middle class flourished after World War II, middle class communities of color failed to keep pace and the U.S. continues to see the repercussions today.

So what are those current repercussions?  The G.I. Bill has led to disparities in homeownership, community resources, education, health and wealth passing through subsequent generations.  We cannot deny the residential segregation that plagues the country, particularly in Michigan – home to one of the most racially segregated regions in the nation.  And while residential segregation may partially be a result of choice for some communities such as immigrant communities (as in, families of the same racial/ethnic background seek to live with others who share their culture, language and customs), the G.I. Bill clearly played a critical role in limiting the economic and residential mobility of veterans of color.  By providing resources for new home construction only, it served to help create suburbs while ensuring no investment or wealth accumulation in existing urban housing.

This type of segregation has allowed policymakers to target communities for investments and disinvestments in ways that layer disadvantage upon disadvantage, whether intentionally or not.  Today in Michigan, we see communities of color that have limited access to high quality early childhood education programs, top performing schools, well-resourced health care facilities, adequately paying jobs, and safe neighborhood spaces.  Michigan’s legislators need to better understand the long-term effect that their decisions make on communities, families and children of color and how strategic investments can help reduce racial disparities while continued disinvestment will further widen the race equity gap.

Learn more about Michigan’s Children’s equity work.

-Mina Hong

Advocates Need Legislators to Know That Kids Count in Michigan

Every year the Michigan League for Human Services produces the Kids Count Data Book, an annual review of child well-being with a profile of every county and the city of Detroit.  The book can be purchased or downloaded from the League website.  As a project partner, we’ll be posting blogs highlighting critical information outlined in the 2011 Data Book and pointing toward related policy strategies.  But, before we get into that, let’s talk about the most important take-away from this release.

Term limits have dictated that this legislature is still inexperienced.   Despite this, they are faced with difficult decisions about investment in the face of Michigan’s economic crisis.   This further complicates the huge challenge they face to invest in critical policy and program in the face of our economic crisis in Michigan.  Policymakers will need your expertise and guidance to make sure that they have all of the information they need to make good policy choices.

Data from the Kids Count 2011 Data Book provides a broad picture of the status of children and families and connects the dots between outcomes for kids and the systems that serve them well or fail to do so. This information is a useful conversation starter as you are talking to your elected officials.  If you’ve never talked with them before or if you talk with them routinely, local Kids Count data can help to frame your conversation.  Asking policymakers what they think about the data, and what plans they have to help address some of the issues of concern is a good place to start. Helping policymakers understand the context behind some of the numbers is even more valuable. Where there have been improvements, have there been community efforts that have impacted the situation? Or have there been cuts in programs and services that have resulted in worsening data in an area?

Constituent conversation with policymakers is critical! Kids Count project staff provide copies of the Data Book to each legislative office, and utilize the information in conversation with legislators and their staff throughout the year. However, when surveyed, legislators say that the way they find out about children and families in their area is from their constituents. Most were familiar with the Kids Count data, but the legislators who really utilized the information were those who had discussed it with their constituents.

There are many examples of decision making indicating that policymakers need our help.  One example is the unrelenting data about increases in child poverty, (including unacceptable increases in children and families living in extreme poverty, with incomes below half of the federal poverty level) and equally unrelenting evidence that time spent in poverty contributes to a myriad of challenges faced by children throughout their lives.  Despite this, the Legislature decided to:  1. virtually eliminate the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit – a program that has successfully moved families with children out of extreme poverty and in many cases out of poverty all together; 2. remove the assistance life-line of thousands of poor families who simply found themselves unable to find a job for too long a time in our current unfriendly economy; and 3.  determined that owning reliable transportation in a state that requires the use of a car to successfully navigate nearly every community, deemed a family unworthy of basic Food Assistance, regardless of actual income.

We need you to weigh into policy decisions.  Contact Michigan’s Children’s staff for more information about talking with your elected officials.  We are here to help.  Access our library of materials to help you make your case, and stay involved with us through our Action Networks.

-Michele Corey

The State of the Union

Last night, President Obama gave his fourth State of the Union address.  As his White House Senior Advisor, David Plouffe, alluded to prior to his address, President Obama focused on the U.S.’s economic recovery by “lay[ing] out … A very specific blueprint for how we build an America that’s durable and that works for as many people in this country as possible.”

While the bulk of President Obama’s speech focused on economic recovery, jobs, energy, and foreign policy; he did spend some time discussing his vision for education.  President Obama stated, “[Education] challenges remain. And we know how to solve them.”  But more importantly, we know how to solve them for all children – regardless of socioeconomic status or racial/ethnic background.  We know what public programs and policies can be improved so that disparities in outcomes for kids – including education – can be reduced.

We need a health care system that ensures access to quality health care for young women before they become pregnant so that when they do become pregnant, they can have healthy, full-term pregnancies and deliver healthy babies.  This is particularly important for African American women who, regardless of socioeconomic status, are more likely to deliver underweight, preterm babies – babies who face greater challenges from birth.

We need an early childhood system that encompasses health, mental health, and early education that begins at birth and supports families with young children through age three.  This means that parents need access to supports – such as high quality home visiting programs – that ensure they can be their children’s first and best teachers.

We need a high quality early childhood education system that supports the healthy development of children and prepares them for school.  A high quality early childhood education that includes parental support and involvement can turnaround the educational equity gap that emerges long before children reach kindergarten doors.

We need a K-12 education system that is strong enough to provide an academically challenging course of instruction, and also flexible enough to meet the ever-changing needs of students and the economy.  The K-12 system needs to provide multiple paths to graduation which lead to equitable outcomes and post-secondary success.

We need education, business and community leaders to form partnerships to build sustainable programs that meet the needs of children, families and communities. Businesses know what types of workers they need and they can work with schools and career training programs so youth can receive job training while gaining a school diploma or post-secondary credential.

We need politicians that will listen to youth and families about the challenges they face – and then stand up for those youth and families through action in their communities and elected roles.

In order to achieve President Obama’s idea of “winning the future” our children need a great start in life that prepares them to be ready to learn when they enter school and supported as they move toward post-secondary success. Turning the economy around certainly needs to include business incentives, adult workforce retraining and support for troops coming back to the U.S., but unless we recognize the importance of ensuring the success of the next generation of workers the economic turnaround won’t last.  Investing in children, particularly those most challenged by their circumstances, must be a key part of rebuilding and strengthening Michigan’s economy.

To learn more about how Michigan’s Children believes policies can support children from cradle to career, check out our website: www.michiganschildren.org.

– Beth Berglin and Mina Hong

A Year in Review for Michigan’s Children

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Michele Corey

Cut Off But Not Cut Out

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

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

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

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

-Mina Hong

Much to Do About Something

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Michele Corey

Hearings on Deaf Ears?

On October 1, 2011 over 11,000 families and nearly 30,000 children were removed from the state’s Family Independence Program (FIP) caseload in Michigan. However, a federal judge ordered a temporary injunction halting these cuts saying that the state did not give enough notice to the families being removed from cash assistance of the state’s intent to remove them. On November 1, 2011 however, approximately 40,000 people lost their cash assistance, which averaged just over $500 a month, just as the cold weather moves in and the holiday season is upon us.

It is possible for families to appeal their loss of benefits and receive a hearing to look into it. This sounds as if some families may be given the chance to at least understand the rationale as to why they have lost assistance, or even have the decision to cut off their assistance overturned. However, with so many appeals coming in, the Department of Human Services (DHS) has taken to reviewing cases this week—over 500 cases a day, under a “rocket docket” approach.

While it is a nice gesture to allow families to appeal their case closure, doing so in such a rapid manner gives families a false sense of empowerment and does not allow for real answers for families that are already wondering how to pay rent next month.

The timing on this couldn’t be worse. While the October 1 deadline missed the start of the school year, the loss in cash assistance benefits for so many children and families comes just as the temperatures fall. In addition, unemployment remains high, wages remain stagnant and in turn, the poverty rate continues to rise. Unfortunately, this means that communities of color, and therefore, children of color, will be hit hardest by losing assistance.

In Michigan, the African American unemployment rate has been more than double that of whites and many of those who are unemployed have children who depend on their income, or lack thereof. This goes hand in hand with data from DHS which states that of all children who were slated to lose assistance, approximately 90 percent are children of color. Families, and children in those families will be pushed even deeper into poverty and it has been shown time and time again that childhood poverty has a direct negative impact on future outcomes. This fact is striking across every racial/ethnic group, but particularly among children of color.

As people look for assistance in their community, United Way 2-1-1 call centers, a resource families were originally directed to check into, may be bearing the brunt of it. While this will place more stress on agencies that are already stretched to the bone, ranging from workforce development agencies to homeless shelters, working with 2-1-1 and other community partners may be the best way to figure out how this devastating policy changes will impact families once their cases have been closed.

-Jacqui Broughton

Pathways to Graduation: Continuing the Conversation

At the November 3rd, Pathways to Graduation Conference, over a hundred people gathered in Lansing to discuss the barriers to bringing disengaged youth back to the education system.  Attendees came from state education and workforce offices, local education agencies, recovery/reengagement programs, county departments, community colleges, universities, philanthropic organizations and other interested non-profit organizations.

Even though our Keynote speaker had to cancel at the last minute because of illness, conference attendees overwhelmingly agreed that the conference identified barriers to disengaged youths educational success. The afternoon breakout sessions brainstormed on these barriers and developed solutions that may need to increase local community development initiatives and make changes to state policies and laws.

Some of the most significant recommendations coming out of the conference are:

Dual Enrollment

  • Change the calculation for Full Time Employees regarding the difference between classes vs. credits.
  • Change the calculation for Full Time Employees regarding the difference between classes vs. credits.
  • Requiring all state-funded post-secondary institutions to accept dual enrollment transfer credits.
  • Developing fiscal incentives for both k-12 and post-secondary institutions to develop dual enrollment programs
  • Develop a communication plan including the benefits of dual enrollment.

Utilizing Technology

  • Fully develop broadband infrastructure so location is no longer a barrier to educational access.
  • Allow for a 5th and 6th year waiver for programs that utilize a non-traditional structure, including some online coursework.
  • Address issues of funding instability for seat-time waivers.
  • Identify ways to add flexibility to teacher contracts to allow hours that are conducive to student’s needs.

Workforce Community Partnerships

  • Programs and schools need understand the staffing needs of the businesses in their communities and develop partnerships to fill those needs.
  • Increase School Administration interaction with the business community and utilize local services when possible
  • Make relationships with model programs, like Michigan Works!, Kiwanis, Rotary, etc… to increase community investment in programs that serve the community’s’ youth.
  • Develop Asset Maps within communities to determine what businesses and community organizations can provide – jobs, mentoring, unique leaning experiences, etc…

Community College Partnerships

  • College faculty teaching at the high school or other K-12 building space – there is room to spare in many school buildings.
  • Utilizing existing K-12 teachers who are qualified to become community college faculty.
  • Develop a bridge from k-12 to college that makes the transition a partnership between the k-12 and post-secondary community.
  • Engage community partners creatively.
  • Recognize dual enrollment as a selling point for both systems – K-12 and post-secondary.
  • Improve local knowledge of existing flexibility for credit transfer options.
  • Facilitate a common definition of readiness – high schools have a readiness definition and post-secondary institutions have different readiness definitions.

We’re currently working on the final report from the conference and will be sharing the recommendations with the legislature and with our partners via the Graduate Michigan Action Network.

-Beth Berglin

Super Committee, What’s the Deal?

What is really the deal with the Congressional Super Committee and are they actually going to come up with a deficit reduction plan that both sides of the aisle can agree upon?

The answer: no one knows.

The deadline for the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction – aka the Super Committee – is today and it seems they are years away from identifying a ten-year plan that would reduce the federal deficit by at least $1.2 trillion.  Senate Democrats on the Super Committee have proposed a plan that would reduce the federal deficit by up to $3 trillion by cutting critical safety net programs like Medicaid and Medicare but also raising new revenues from tax code changes.

However, the proposal was a no-go as soon as the Republican Super Committee members saw it because of the tax changes.

If the super committee fails to reach an agreement by midnight tonight, sequestration takes place.  Sequestration would trigger across the board cuts for all discretionary programs while preserving mandatory programs.  (Don’t know the difference between discretionary and mandatory programs?  Learn more at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.)  The across-the-board cuts would begin January 1, 2013. If the Super Committee successfully votes out a plan by tonight, the plan then goes to Congress.  The plan must be voted on by December 23, 2011; amendments and filibustering are not allowed and only a simple majority is needed.

So why does all this matter to children and families in Michigan?  The Super Committee has full jurisdiction to make any changes to discretionary and mandatory programs to reduce the deficit.  This means that critical entitlement programs could be at risk such as Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, SNAP (aka food stamps), free- and reduced-lunch, child care, etc.  But if the Super Committee fails to reach an agreement and sequestration takes place, then education programs such as Title I funding and Head Start, health programs such as the Maternal and Child Health Block Grant and community health centers, workforce development programs and the like would be decimated.  Either way, it could be bad for kids.  Thus, a smart deficit reduction plan would address needed revenues and prioritizes sensible and effective investments in low-income children and families.

Here’s the catch.  If the Super Committee doesn’t identify a plan triggering sequestration, Congress has an entire year to “fix” the problem.  Congress could pass a law that would reverse sequestration and revert to traditional methods of determining the federal budget rather than succumbing to the across-the-board cuts.

So in the end, what does this all really mean for children and kids?  I still don’t really know but I’m keeping my eyes on it and telling Representatives Camp and Upton – Michigan’s two Congressmen who sit on the 12-member Super Committee – that federal dollars are important for Michigan children and families.  Learn more on Michigan’s Children’s federal budget page.

-Mina Hong

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