Speaking For Kids

Starting Off with a Shutdown

October 1st marks the beginning of the new fiscal year for both the State of Michigan and the United States.  And boy are they starting off in two completely different but intricately intertwined ways.

Nationally, we’re obviously operating under a partial government shutdown as a result of Congress’ inability to identify a short-term spending plan to maintain operations.  Congress continues to negotiate a short-term plan to fund the federal government and will likely come to some resolution that will maintain fiscal year 2013 funding levels for a little while longer to give them more time to identify a fiscal year 2014 budget.  Of course, the longer this partial shutdown lasts, the greater likelihood of Michigan’s already struggling children and families to feel the effects of the shutdown.  For example, basic needs programs that children and families rely on such as nutrition assistance through WIC and the school lunch program could be in jeopardy if Congress doesn’t agree to a spending plan quickly.

At the state level, today marks the first day of the fiscal year with a budget that includes some significant enhancements (as well as disinvestments) to programs serving Michigan’s most challenged children and families.  What we can’t forget, however, is that our state budget is reliant on federal funding, so a continued government shutdown will impact our state operations, and whatever ultimate budget decisions that Congress makes will impact the way our fiscal year 2014 budget is rolled out.  I’ve said this many times before but it bears repeating.  Over 40 percent of our state budget comes from federal sources, but what’s even more important is that the departments that serve Michigan’s most challenged children and families have even greater reliance on federal dollars.  Nearly two-thirds of the Department of Community Health budget is made-up of federal dollars, three-quarters of the Department of Education budget comes from federal sources, and four-fifths of the Department of Human Services budget comes from the feds.  The departments that work to reduce disparities in child outcomes by ensuring that our most struggling children are fed, housed, safe, healthy, and educated are the departments that will feel the brunt of this government shutdown.

So as we mark the beginning of the fiscal year 2014 budget with some state-level wins like the historic expansion of the Great Start Readiness Preschool Program, expansion of the Healthy Kids Dental Program, and some additional supports to address infant mortality; we can’t forget how programs that rely on federal dollars will negatively impact the same families who would be benefiting from these wins.  The same children who will have greater access to preschool and oral health care are also the ones who will be impacted by cuts to cash assistance, food assistance, and child care assistance if Congress can’t come to a resolution.

In all likelihood, Congress will come to a resolution in the very near future through the passage of a short-term Continuing Resolution (CR) to maintain federal government operations at the fiscal year 2013 levels for multiple weeks.  However, Congress will need to agree on a spending plan for the entire federal fiscal year and this is where your voice can make a difference.  While the sequester seems like ages ago, the impacts are being felt across our state now, and our members of Congress need to hear about them.  If your child is no longer able to access Head Start or adequate special education services as a result of the sequester, please talk to your members of Congress and urge them to reinstate the harmful sequester cuts in the fiscal year 2014 budget that they are debating.  Or, if programs like food assistance or after-school supports are helping your family or your community, Congress needs to hear about those too.

To learn more about the importance of the federal budget here in Michigan, visit our website.

-Mina Hong

Beyond the Bickering to What Matters

I was so proud today to see the culmination of hard work from two members of our Congressional Delegation – yes, our Congressional Delegation, those guys in DC who are responsible for either coming to some budget conclusion today or partially shutting down the federal government.  In Michigan, we have some pretty important folks who represent us in DC.  Congressman Dave Camp, who chairs the Ways and Means Committee – you know, that committee responsible for coming up with government spending priorities – and Congressman Sander Levin, who is the ranking Democrat on that very same Committee.  While more often than not, the ideological gridlock in the U.S. House of Representatives seems unbearable, every now and then, there is a glimmer of bi-partisan leadership about something that really matters to the most challenged children and families in our state and nation.  This is one of those glimmers, and the leaders responsible need to have that work acknowledged and celebrated, even in the midst of larger and more polarizing conversations about how we will be spending our public resources in this nation.

Two Democrats and two Republicans, including our two delegation members mentioned above, today introduced the Promoting Adoption and Legal Guardianship for Children in Foster Care Act, which reauthorizes the federal Adoption Incentives program through 2016 and makes improvements in how the program works to help some of the kids who tend to stay in foster care longer than others – those who are older, who are over-represented by children of color.  This program was originally created by the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 to help states increase adoptions by giving them some additional resource to do so.  (I shouldn’t forget the two other bill sponsors – a Democrat from Texas and a Republican from Washington state.)

In Michigan, we are again looking at the over-representation of children of color throughout our child protective services system.  This disparity begins at the time that complaints are investigated and continues to increase through removal of children from their families through permanent placements with guardians and adoptive parents or aging out of foster care with no placement option.  Incentives to target adoption and guardianship supports so that they benefit the kids who need them the most are critical.  The fact that two members of our delegation were able to overcome their disagreements on a host of issues, to work together on this critical issue, is worthy of celebration.  Now, they start working on all of their colleagues on the Hill and we are poised to assist.

Michigan’s Children is part of a national network called SPARC – the State Policy Advocacy and Reform Center – that brings advocates from around the country together to insist on better public policy for children, youth and families in a variety of areas including protecting our most vulnerable.  As Congressmen Camp and Levin work across the partisan aisle to build support for this reauthorization, we will be working with our colleagues in other states to encourage constituent pressure and support to assist.

Please, acknowledge this good behavior – too often our elected officials only hear from us when we are expressing disappointment for what we see as poor decision-making on their parts.  Right now, we think that Congressmen Camp and Levin need to know that their constituents appreciate their efforts, and the rest of our delegation needs to understand that we expect similar bi-partisan work to be done on behalf of the most challenged children, youth and families in our state – today, tomorrow and every day.

-Michele Corey

Building Successful 21st Century Learners – the Common Core and Beyond

I spent the week last week with colleagues from around the country as part of the C.S. Mott Foundation-funded White-Riley-Peterson Policy Fellowship, strategizing individual and collective action necessary to garner the support necessary to fully fund one of the most important and effective achievement gap closure strategies we have at our disposal – extended learning opportunities.  These opportunities reach beyond the school day and often the school walls to provide additional space for quality teaching and learning to occur.  The research clearly illustrates that quality extended learning opportunities can help with achievement, behavior and graduation.

Bill White at the Mott Foundation said it better than most – extended learning is not a silver bullet for all of our educational system woes, but it does represent a silver lining in our education reform conversation.  This is particularly true when we look at the best strategies for gaps that start early and layer through a child’s educational career.  We keep hammering on the fact that literacy gaps emerge by 9 months.  There is research indicating that even when gains are equal through the school year (which they too often are not), gaps in literacy and math skills increase by nearly 2 ½ years of schooling by the 5th grade due to academic ground lost over the summer for children who cannot access quality programs during that time.  We know that once you are behind by the 4th grade, particularly in reading and math, you are fighting an uphill battle in the higher grades, and kids who repeat a grade before high school have only a 20 percent chance of graduating with a diploma.  Struggling kids clearly need more time to graduate and more support to catch up than most communities currently provide.

Our Michigan Legislature is currently focused on a couple of specific topics of education-reform conversation – both critical, both extremely impactful in the educational success of our young people, and both connected to the silver lining of extended learning in ways that you might not expect.   The first, known nationally as the Common Core, is about the need for a tough, universal, consistent curriculum in our schools that reflects the skill-base necessary for success in the world today.  Whether or not we think that Michigan students should master similar skills as students in the rest of the country or the rest of the world (the “common” debate), we can certainly agree that they are at a disadvantage if they fail to master a wide skill base – a wider skill base, perhaps, than we have needed in the past, to be college and career ready and to be well positioned to assist Michigan in our economic recovery.

It is completely rational and realistic to allow Michigan’s education system to continue on its path to implement the Common Core and support that implementation with adequate preparation, training and evaluation structures in place for the staff who are responsible for teaching and learning through the school day.  Thankfully, the Michigan House is acting today to again allow that to happen, and we have terrific research and advocacy involved from the Michigan Coalition for High Student Standards suggesting necessary components to do that effectively.

However, it is not rational or realistic to suggest that all of those skills should or even could be adequately gained during the 20% of a student’s time that they are spending in school.  Where else can they gain these skills that we can’t argue are essential?  In their homes and communities – extended learning opportunities are connected to the K-12 learning day, but can expand on that learning, can help students get motivated and engaged, and can help them catch up.  Supporting partnerships between schools, community colleges, workforce partners, youth serving agencies, parents and many others can serve to bolster educational and life success.

Michigan has a structure in place to connect the dots between state departments and other partners to take full advantage of this silver lining, but now we are relying entirely on federal 21st Century Learning Center funding to do that, despite some history of state support that has faltered in recent years.  Our State Superintendent has bravely taken on racial equity gaps as a focus for the Department of Education, and resources in that Department are being devoted to gap-closure strategies.  We need to think about how we are going to prioritize public dollar in Michigan to make sure more students are successfully mastering the wide range of skills necessary for career and college success.

So, we must support school staff and administrators in doing all that they can within the timeframe they have to support tough, universal, consistent learning standards in our schools that reflects the skill-base necessary for success in the world today.  And, we must consider what else is needed to make sure that all of our young people are ready for the challenges ahead of them.

Stay tuned for the 2nd big Legislative conversation – teacher evaluation, which is also clearly connected to all of this discussion.

-Michele Corey

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