Michigan

Cast Your Vote for Children, Youth and Families

November 3, 2014 – I came away from our youth-led candidate forums this fall feeling pretty optimistic about our democratic process. The candidates who attended our four forums around the state were well prepared, articulate, respectful and willing to prioritize the intense demands of an election season to spend 2-3 hours with groups of young people, their parents, the organizations supporting them and members of the communities where they live. Despite the fact that many of the young people weren’t of voting age, these candidates recognized that they were future voters and that their parents and other community members were voters or potential voters. The candidates also recognized, and articulated to us, the media and the young people themselves, that they had something to learn from the experience that would help them in the election and beyond.

That said, there are differences between the candidates for office. They have different opinions about the solutions to the concerns raised by the young people at our forums. They have different opinions about the role of government to be part of those solutions, and how much public resource should be invested. They have different priorities for their own work if elected, and different ways to keep in touch with their constituents to make sure that they are prioritizing what works.

I want to thank our local forum partners, who supported the young people in their preparation, facilitated the forum location, and helped Michigan’s Children convince the candidates to come and the media to cover the forums. We will be working with these partners after the election as well, to help the winners better understand critical issues and workable solutions, and to hold them accountable to make sure that their actions once elected match their commitments made.

I also want to personally thank the candidates who spent time with us at our forums. While I’m not endorsing them individually or as a group, we do want to recognize their participation. Many candidates who were invited did not participate, and those who did deserve our respect. The time that they took was so impactful to the young people involved, and helped their communities better understand their commitment to children, youth and families in our state.

Tomorrow is election day. As Matt Gillard said in his recent video on our Sandbox Party website, we are all tired or seeing all of the campaign ads, and getting the endless stream of fliers in our mailboxes and phone calls. However, decisions that will be made by the share of registered voters who show up at the polls to cast their vote will determine the path of our state for years to come. Don’t let those decisions be made by someone else, make sure that you are part of the process.

Find out more about the youth-led candidate forums, and about how you can get more information about your candidates.

Then, of course, come November 5, join us as we use our influence as voters and constituents to help and to guide the winners toward decisions that point us toward a better Michigan for children, youth and families.

– Michele Corey

Starting School and Staying There

September 2, 2014 – Here we are, the day after Labor Day, with all eyes toward young people returning to school.  Now that they are back, we need to keep them there – making sure that they aren’t losing opportunity because of multiple absences, and making sure that they stick it out until high school graduation and beyond.

September is national Attendance Awareness Month and the noteworthy Attendance Works national organization released today a study about the impact of attendance, or lack of attendance, on educational success in Michigan and around the country, titled Absences Add Up: How Attendance Influences Student Success.  As the report authors discuss, and Michigan’s Children has discussed many times in our blogs and elsewhere, it has never before been so essential that we move all of our young people to educational success.  One of the barriers to doing this is when young people aren’t getting all of the learning opportunities that they could.  This happens during the summer, it happens during the 80 percent of waking hours that children and youth aren’t in school and it happens when they are absent.  Bottom line:  they miss out and have limited opportunity to catch up.

So, not surprisingly, what Absences Add Up reports is that in Michigan and around the country, your assessment scores have EVERYTHING to do with how often you are absent.  Being present in school matters to academic performance for each grade and subject studied, for every group of children and in every locality.  The report states that “in many cases, the students with more absences have skill levels one to two years below their peers. While students from low-income families are more likely to be chronically absent, the ill effects of missing too much school hold true for all socioeconomic groups.”

In Michigan, there was a 15 point difference in average math assessment scores between 4th graders with no absences in the past month and those who missed at 3 or more days.  Similar gaps are seen in 4th and 8th grade reading.  The largest gap in Michigan is the 23 point difference for 8th grade math.  I see the impact of the cumulative nature of math instruction with my own kids, which is clearly hampered by multiple absence.

What are the keys to keeping kids in school?  Ah, that is the complication.  There are many reasons why children and youth are absent from school, some of which are under the control of the school system and some that are not.  The State Board of Education and the Michigan Department of Human Services recently staffed a Truancy Task Force with the purpose of building a common definition for truancy that could be utilized across the state.  In the course of that discussion, what was also apparent is that there are as many reasons for absence as there are absences themselves and a myriad of ways that local school systems both report and deal with absence.  So if it is this complicated, what can be done?

  1. Support integrated services in schools.  When schools are able to connect families with other community resources, there are more chances to find and address the causes of school absence – be they related to physical and behavioral health issues, unstable housing, bullying or disengagement by parents or students.
  2. Support expanded learning opportunities.  There is ample evidence documenting the impact of quality afterschool and summer learning programs on in-school attendance.  When expanded learning opportunities are utilized to engage and re-engage young people in their learning, they are more likely to engage and re-engage with school as well.

As we’ve been saying over and over again, this election season gives all of us a platform to see what the candidates for office suggest we do to keep kids in school and learning.  When kids miss school, they miss opportunity.  They can’t afford it and neither can we.

Politics to Policy

August 7, 2014 – I’ll be the first to admit it. I hate politics. Being in the public policy field, people sometimes ask me if I ever think about running for public office. I just laugh. And never is there a time more brutally and unapologetically political than an election season. This seems to be particularly true leading up to primary elections when candidates are trying to market themselves as more conservative or more liberal than their challengers. Matt enjoys all of the politics (read his political perspectives on the outcomes of the primary elections), and we are glad that he is able to translate his enthusiasm and interest into great policy strategy for Michigan’s Children. That said, I’m looking forward to moving past the politics and getting back to conversations about public policy. In other words, lifting up what matters to Michigan families, and ensuring that public policies and investments are made in the best interest of kids.

Now that we’re looking forward to the general elections, we can thankfully move in that direction. The general elections are a time when we can really begin to ascertain the differences between candidates on issues that matter to children, youth and families and see if we agree with how they say that they will tackle areas of concern. Now is the time when we can really understand how our candidates will or will not prioritize the needs of Michigan’s most challenged kids and families. At Michigan’s Children, we have highlighted some of our priorities this election season, and you’ll be hearing more and more from all of us about each of these areas in the months to come:
• Two-generation strategies that ensure parents have opportunities to get ahead in life while their children are connected to high quality learning opportunities.
• Adequately supporting the needs of Michigan’s most challenged young children from birth through age three.
• Increasing access to high quality child care for children from birth through age 12.
• Expanding learning opportunities for students and young people who face educational challenges to ensure that all young people can obtain a high school credential.

Maybe some of these issues resonate with concerns that you have about your family or your community. If so, please visit the Sandbox Party website to learn more about What’s At Stake this election season, and of course check back to Michigan’s Children’s Resources section as well.

While I hate politics, I still believe in the system. Sure, many Americans and Michiganians feel that our government is no longer functional – that Congress can’t get anything done, and that the Michigan Legislature no longer represents their views. But unless we get involved and stay involved in the democratic process (read Michele’s blog on her reflections on the primary elections and how it relates to this), we can’t expect Congress or the State Legislature to understand our priorities. This election season, I hope you will begin having conversations with candidates about what matters most to you, your family, and your community. If you’ve already started those conversations, kudos to you! Please keep them going and connect your friends and networks into those conversations so that more Michigan voters can be informed. And I hope you will join the 18% of Michigan’s registered voters who voted on Tuesday and get out to vote in November.

– Mina Hong

The Power of Our Vote

August 7, 2014 – Okay, I’ve admitted to you before that I love democracy – I love the power and the responsibility that comes with determining who will be making big decisions on my behalf, and assisting them make the best decisions possible along the way. For the past couple of months, we’ve been pestering folks as best we can to participate in the electoral process, beginning not in November, but beginning earlier than that in the Primary Elections that happened yesterday.

As we looked today at the winners and losers from yesterday and what that tells us about Michigan voters, candidates and their supporters, I was struck again by how close some of these Primary races were – several decided by fewer than 10 votes. Yes, you heard me, fewer than 10. I’ve had more people at my house for my book club! And many more decided by fewer than 100. We all know 100 people, and it is astounding to think that is all it takes to hand somebody success or failure at the polls. Now we know that turn out will be higher in November – typically we have about 20% (18% this last go round) of registered voters voting in the primaries and about 45% or so voting in the general election (okay, those dismal numbers are worthy of another blog another day), but contests will still be won often by small margins. Why would we put that kind of power into the hands of someone else?

The other thing that I was struck by was that once again, money alone doesn’t buy elections. Whenever I talk to people about getting more involved in policy advocacy, I always stress that even though the media never stops talking about the impact that money has in politics, it actually isn’t as impactful as some democratic system nay-sayers want to believe. That said, even I sometimes use the caveat that money makes more of a difference in statewide races, and in Congressional bids, then it does in more local races. Well, yesterday the people voting in the Republican primary of the 4th District Congressional seat, the one vacated by popular and powerful U.S. Representative Dave Camp, voted for the candidate who got outspent more than $5 to $1.

So what won that primary contest if it wasn’t money? Votes. Oh yeah, they always win. Candidates can get money from where-ever, and some of them do. You hear a lot about big monied interests funding campaigns that aren’t their own – campaigns in other communities, in other states. Well, that can get you advertising, staff and sometimes better strategy, but the only thing that gets you into office are the votes. Those can only come from the constituents in the district that you are vying to represent. They can only come from us, and we are all on even footing with votes – we each get one.

Now that we are moving into the general election, we have to take a closer look at how we decide which candidates are best to represent our interests – policy making in the best interest of children, youth and families. At Michigan’s Children, we’ll be focused on making sure that candidates are hearing about the issues that most concern constituents, and we’ll be paying close attention to what candidates are saying or not saying about the most critical investments needed in Michigan today:

1. Two-generation strategies that ensure children do well while their parents move ahead.
2. Earlier learning opportunities that optimize investments in 4-year old preschool.
3. Accessible, affordable, quality care for children and youth while parents can’t be with them.
4. Expanded learning opportunities beyond the school day.

Check back with the Sandbox Party and keep informed through our Sandbox Bulletin, our Early Learning Action Network and our Graduate Michigan Action Network. The power to move improved public policy for children, youth and families is, as always, in our hands.

– Michele Corey

Four Things We Learned from This Year’s Primaries

August 6, 2014 – This year’s all-important primary election has come and gone and four themes emerged from the results:

1. The battle for the soul of the Michigan Republican Party has not been decided. Establishment Republican interests took on Tea Party/Conservative candidates in numerous races throughout the state, and while both sides scored some major victories, no clear-cut winner emerged. With Todd Courser of Lapeer, Cindy Gamrat of Plainwell, and Gary Glenn of Midland all winning highly contested open GOP primaries in which establishment Republican groups spent huge money supporting their opposition, the Tea Party faithful can point to some impressive victories in the state House. Similarly, Congressman Justin Amash’s high-profile victory over establishment-supported Brian Ellis in the 3rd Congressional district was another big win for the Tea Party cause.

On the other side of the coin, the establishment-supported candidates emerged in the other three closely watched GOP Congressional primaries: Mike Bishop defeated Tom McMillin in the 8th Congressional district, David Trott bested Congressman Kerry Bentivolio in the 11th Congressional district, and John Moolenaar beat Paul Mitchell in the 4th Congressional district. The Republican establishment scored another impressive victory in the 37th state Senate district’s GOP primary with state Rep. Wayne Schmidt handily defeating state Rep. Greg MacMaster in a nasty northern Michigan battle.

This mixed bag of results from these Tea Party vs. Establishment fights ensures the ideological fight for control of the Michigan GOP will continue through at least the next Legislative session.

2. The power of incumbency remains formidable in state Legislative elections. With the notable exception of State Rep. Frank Foster losing in the 107th state House district, all incumbents from both political parties were successful in their state Legislative primaries. This trend has continued for several election cycles now where even well-financed and well-organized challengers have virtually no chance of knocking off incumbents in primary elections. This reality holds true in both Democratic and Republican primaries and ultimately discourages many potential candidates from pursuing Legislative office.

3. Strong female candidates making their gender an issue have success. Southfield Mayor Brenda Lawrence emerged from a tough Democratic primary in the 14th Congressional district at least in part by successfully articulating the need for more women in government and leadership positions in our society and by standing on her support from Women’s Rights groups.

4. Low-voter turnout equals incredibly close races. Statewide, overall turnout for the August primary came in at right around 18 percent of all registered voters. This abysmally low number, combined with the fact that most Legislative and Congressional districts have been gerrymandered to be not competitive in the November general elections, means a small minority of Michigan’s citizens actually elected our next representatives in our state and federal government. Also, the low turnout led to numerous races being decided by fewer than 100 votes and in some races even less than 10 votes separated the top finishers. If turnout continues to remain this low in primary elections, the extremes of both political parties will continue to have undue influence and the voices of the vast majority of Michigan’s citizens will go unheard.

With the primary election behind us, supporters of children, youth, and family issues can now turn our attention to the November General Election. With the candidates for Governor and the open U.S. Senate seat traveling around the state spreading their message to voters, as well as candidates for Congressional and Legislative offices out in your communities, everyone will have an opportunity to find out how the candidates feel about the issues that are important to them. Please use www.michigansandboxparty.org as a resource to become engaged in this critical upcoming election.

– Matt Gillard

Our Kids Futures Hinge on Getting Out the Vote

July 31, 2014 – It’s the height of the election season and we’re all hearing promising political rhetoric from public office-seekers about children being a priority in our state.  Yet, last week’s 25th annual KIDS COUNT Report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation told us Michigan continues to move down the national rankings of well-being indicators for kids.  Once again our ranking has sadly slipped, putting us in 32nd place and below the majority of states.

While it may be comforting to hear candidates and elected officials say they care about the future of Michigan’s children, words without action aren’t enough.  What we need — and the public should demand this election season — are policies and investments that decidedly move our children and state forward with clear vision and united resolve.  Failing to make progress is not good for our children, youth and families.  And it’s not good for the future security and vitality of our communities and our state.

This is not acceptable and needs to change now.  It is the best reason to become an active voter this election season.  Our most powerful tool to impact child well-being in Michigan is to vote in the August 5 primary.

Michigan’s Children has made it a priority this summer to encourage people who care about kids to take a serious look at who’s running for office in their communities, to learn where they stand on the issues most important to their children, youth and families, and to make it a point to vote in their primaries. (Our Sandbox Party website at michigansandboxparty.org is focused on the election with resources and tools to help voters.)

This year, the state will elect the next governor, all 110 state House members and 38 state senators, as well as members to Congress from across the state and the first new U.S. senator from Michigan in nearly two decades.  We are promoting election advocacy in earnest this summer because we know that redistricting and the manner in which political boundaries have been re-drawn have made nearly all primary races pivotal this year.   In many areas the winners in August are likely to become your representative in November.

When government representatives make children and families a priority, it increases the likelihood for investments in health, social and education supports children need to succeed in school and in life.  Particularly for challenged children – those from low-income families and families of color – these investments are critical for building a brighter future for Michigan as a whole.

While the stakes are high this season, we also know that most registered voters don’t come out in August primaries.  To that we say, don’t let other people decide who will represent you and your families for the next two and four years.

When voter turnout is high, candidates have to appeal to the views of the majority of the citizens they are running to represent.  When voter turnout is low and relegated to those only at the far ends of the political spectrum, candidates need only to cater to those on the far right or far left and the opinions of the majority of their perspective constituents are ignored.

This is an extremely important election for children, youth and families in Michigan.  If you care about children and want a government that makes children a priority, get out and vote.  Remember, kids can’t vote.  That’s why you should vote with them in mind.  Please vote August 5th.

– Matt Gillard

Portions of this blog were published as an opinion piece in the Detroit News on 7/31/14.

Needed: A Budget for Children, Youth and Families

June 27, 2014 — According to the recent release of the 2014 Children’s Budget from one of our great national partners, First Focus, we’ve spent right around eight percent of our federal budget resources on children in this country for the last five years. Because of overall cuts to federal spending, this has resulted in decreasing investment, particularly in the areas of child welfare and education. According to the report, since its peak in 2010, total federal spending on children has dropped 14 percent after adjusting for inflation, while overall federal spending decreased just 8 percent during the same period.

What do federal investments have to do with Michigan policymaking? Remember the state budget process that we’ve been talking about? Well, many of those decisions are dictated by the resources that Michigan receives from the federal government. Eighty percent of funding for the Michigan Department of Human Services comes from the federal government, which funds critical safety net programs, and virtually all of the state’s efforts that support nutrition, prevention of child abuse and neglect and the care for children and youth who have been removed from their families due to maltreatment. Two of every three dollars in the Michigan Department of Community Health budget comes from federal sources, much of which helps to fund the Medicaid program serving hundreds of thousands of Michigan children and youth, and supports school- and community-based health services for the most underserved children, youth and families. The Michigan Department of Education receives 71 percent of its funding from federal sources, much of that resource dedicated toward closing achievement gaps for the most challenged young people. Click here for more about the impact of federal spending in Michigan.

Included in the release were polling results, conducted by American Viewpoint. Polls have found that virtually all voters believed that protecting basic investments in children like health, education and nutrition was important. Three-quarters of those polled believe that the protection of these investment was highly or extremely important – the same share as those feeling similarly about the importance of debt reduction.

So, what’s the problem? Why do we have stagnant investment? The same polls revealed that voters don’t focus very much on children’s issues when they are voting, or later, when they are holding elected officials accountable for their decisions once in office. Even among parents, when asked to list the issue most important to them in deciding their vote for U.S. Congress, only 10% put children’s issues at the top. Of course, we can certainly tie the issues that voters do list first to our success or failure in investing in children and families. The number 1 priority: economic issues like jobs and the minimum wage (think career and college ready young people); and number 2: fiscal issues like government spending, taxes and the national debt (think return on wise investments).

The 2014 election in Michigan will be the most impactful in decades. We will again be electing the people who will be determining spending priorities in our state and our nation. Let’s make sure that they all know that we are expecting them to focus on making more young children ready for school, more children of all ages safe and secure, and more young people ready for college and career. Let’s make sure that they know that when they do that in proven effective ways, more young people are able to access family supporting career employment. When they target public spending on those programs with proven return on investment, public resources have more bang for their buck.

Find out more about how to get involved yourself and how to help others get engaged this election season by visiting the Michigan’s Children Sandbox Party website.

– Michele Corey

State of the Polarized State

Last night, Governor Snyder presented his third State of the State address to a Legislature that is still recovering from a bitterly divisive lame duck session.  The Governor attempted to provide some hope for reconciliation to get things done in a bipartisan fashion in 2013 by saying in his address “I appreciate that  people have different perspectives … I’m going to work hard to find common ground where we can work together and I hope all of you join me in doing the same thing.”  But, the partisan ways of lame duck haunted the State Capitol in last night’s address.  In a time when too many Michigan children and families continue to struggle, the Governor and legislative leadership must take steps to move past the polarization to build effective public policies for a better Michigan future.

So what did we hear in Governor Snyder’s State of the State?  Last week, we laid out what we hoped to hear in his State of the State and were disappointed that none of the items were addressed, nor did the Governor lay out any real details pertaining to the needs of children and families.  One silver lining was his mention to expand funding for Michigan’s Great Start Readiness preschool program to eventually ensure that all children who are eligible for the program can access it.  This program has proven to reduce the school readiness gap that affects too many children entering kindergarten and can help reduce the achievement gap throughout a student’s K-12 experience.  But, Governor Snyder did not discuss how this expansion would be funded nor did he discuss the role that early childhood education beginning at birth can play in reducing the achievement gap as well as other strategies throughout K-12.

The Governor must work with both our Republican and Democratic leaders to identify a feasible way to pay for an expansion of early childhood education programming that doesn’t jeopardize other important funding streams.  Both sides of the aisle must come together to discuss what Michigan needs to address the academic achievement gap in an effective way that better prepares Michigan’s future workforce.  Our legislators must have some honest conversations about how the partisanship of the lame duck session has built significant distrust among the legislature and begin to find ways to rebuild that trust for the betterment of Michiganians.

Policymakers must build on the fact that caring about children is universal.  This means continuing to invest in school readiness programs for young children from birth to age five; expanding support for effective strategies, like increasing access to before- and after-school programming, that move more young people to a high school credential; and continuing to ensure that education reform conversations focus on evidence-based best practices to reduce the achievement gap.

The Governor and legislative leaders must work together in 2013 to ensure that public policy decisions benefit Michigan children and Michigan’s future.

-Mina Hong

Strengthening Michigan’s Voices

Dealing with the implication of the federal fiscal cliff, overhauling Michigan’s educational system, implementing health care reform, all with a new legislative session that includes new members, new committee chairs, new caucus dynamics.  Whew!  How will we know how changes are impacting the large and growing equity gaps we see in this state?  How will we know how the changes are impacting the children and families most vulnerable to public policy shifts?

Even in the best of times, this is a challenge for those of us trying to give voice to children, youth and families around the state.  Unfortunately, this is not the best of times.  Michigan’s Children is about to celebrate its 20th year, and in some ways, we are in our own adolescent phase.  We are glad that like the public policies that give young people and families second chances that we’ve advocated strongly for throughout our existence, we have also been given a chance to reflect and review.

We need some help with that reflection and review, so we are also glad that some of the best advocacy minds in the state are going to help us.  Over the next five months or so, our Transition Task Force will be convening.  This Task Force will be evaluating our role, credibility, capacity and viability.  This evaluation will be bolstered by data about the impact we have (and have not) made over the last 20 years, and the effectiveness of our current advocacy strategies.  The Task Force will also have access to information about the most effective advocacy organizations in our state and around the country as it evaluates our role as the independent voice for children in Michigan.

The Task Force will be making recommendations about the best way to strengthen advocacy work for children, youth and families in Michigan and the role that Michigan’s Children and others can play in that work going forward.   I’m looking forward to being part of this important process in Michigan, and am excited about the future of advocacy in our state.  We all know that all of the policy challenges we will face in 2013 and beyond need the strongest advocates to face them.

-Michele Corey

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