Building Champions for Education and Life Success

Bridge Magazine released their ranked list of Academic State Champions – the Michigan schools considered to be over-achievers, that is that their students have better test scores than other schools with similar student and family demographics.  We applaud the Bridge and Public Sector Consultants in their efforts to examine student achievement a little bit differently, acknowledging that different schools serve different families and students, and that success for schools with higher educational resources available to them and higher resources available to their families needs to be measured differently from that of schools and families with fewer resources available.  And beyond resource and demographics, we also need to listen to young people themselves on the challenges they face and how well their schools and communities assist them in overcoming those challenges.

I just emceed a YouthSpeak event yesterday at the Washtenaw County Chambers.  Michigan’s Children, the Washtenaw Alliance for Children and Youth, the Washtenaw Intermediate School District and State Representative David Rutledge brought together State Representatives, County Commissioners, School Board members and administrators from several school systems in the area, and 18 young people from a variety of geographies and circumstances together to talk about building more educational success in their communities.   As always, the young people articulately expressed their concerns and recommendations.

Based on this and many other conversations with young people, in addition to the Bridge’s evaluation of success, we would like to see Michigan evaluate and congratulate school systems on several other essential components:

  1. On their ability to provide alternatives to disciplinary practices that cause young people to miss educational opportunity and access community resources to assist.
  2. On their ability to reconnect with young people who have disconnected – through support of programs for the 5th and 6th year of a diploma path, and through support of GED and other alternatives for students with extremely challenging circumstances to continue on their post-secondary paths.
  3. On their ability to individualize educational strategies to accommodate life challenges, and their ability to support real and consistent supportive relationships between adults and students inside the classroom and beyond.
  4. On their ability to connect their students with extended learning opportunities beyond the school day that help young people better see their own strengths and build on their own successes and leadership potential.
  5. On their ability to assess early issues outside the school walls that impact educational success like mental or behavioral health needs, homelessness and mobility challenges and intervene with the help of community partners.
  6. Finally, and maybe most importantly, on their ability to consistently involve the voices of the most challenged young people in policy decisions and priority setting.

None of these suggestions are new.  They come up every time we allow young people to tell us about strategies that matter to them and to their success.  Let’s listen and act.  Policy conversations are happening right now about the state budget, about teacher evaluation, school discipline and “any time, any way, any pace” learning opportunities.  Michigan can prioritize resources and options for the most challenged children, youth, families, schools and communities in proven effective ways that can make a difference in our state’s success.  We will continue to work with policymakers to help them see those policy options and we need your help to show policymakers that you support those decisions.

-Michele Corey

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Raising Our Voices in 2014

With the holiday season behind us, the 2014 election season will soon take center stage. Unfortunately the future of children, youth and families in Michigan often gets lost during campaign hullabaloo, despite the fact that it is consistently a top priority for voters. Now is our chance to change that.

Of course Michigan’s Children will be closely following this year’s state budget process that began with clues in the Governor’s State of the State last week and will continue with his budget release in early February.  Of course we will be working with national partners like First Focus to intervene in strategic federal budget and policy conversations.  We will be keeping you posted about all of that, as we always do.  But my thoughts today are focused on the core of our democracy – how we chose the people who represent us and who we expect to make the best public policy decisions on our behalf.  Voters like yourselves around the state and around the country are deeply concerned about the challenges children, youth, their families and their communities face today and their prospects for the future. We know that the majority of voters believe that children’s lives are worse today than they were 10 years ago, and that our own children will be more challenged in building their lives, families and communities than we were.   Here’s the good news:  voters want to help. Even voters who believe government does too much want the federal budget to prioritize investments in children.  The dilemma is that people don’t always cast their votes with this in mind.

As in each election, decisions made by those we elect this November to local, state and federal offices will have direct and immediate consequences for our communities.  As the recent Kids Count in Michigan Databook again revealed, increasing shares of children, youth and families in Michigan are becoming even more vulnerable as poverty continues to rise and child abuse and neglect reaches additional victims.  To change this trajectory, Michigan needs leaders who will champion policy and program decisions proven to work.  Consider…

  • The federal Child Tax Credit and Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) lift five million children out of poverty every year, but Congress will decide whether those defenses shelter more children or fewer from poverty’s reach. One-fifth of children live in homes affected by hunger, and with nearly half of Food Stamps funds going to children, Congress will decide which children get the food they need and which go hungry. Efforts over the last several years by the Michigan Legislature to cut supports for low wage workers like the state EITC are counter-productive.  Michigan’s subsidized child care system needs major changes to make staying on the job the best family choice for parents struggling to meet children’s needs.  Workforce development resources need to be much better targeted toward the most challenged families and include better supports for education and training.  Members of our Legislature and the Governor will determine if we will chart a more family-friendly course in the coming years.
  • Our schools continue to struggle, in large part because a parent’s income rather than a child’s ability determines whether kids begin school ready to learn, have great schools to attend, and can continue with the extended learning supports that are so critical to building life and career success.  A federal-state pre-school partnership could help to level the playing field, but whether that proposal advances or falters will be up to the men and women we send to Washington. Michigan has taken huge steps in improving pre-school access, but has not advanced programming for infants, toddlers and their families, failing to close literacy and other gaps when they first appear – as early as nine months. And, our elected officials have failed to prioritize programs that improve the educational success of the most challenged young people and adults.
  • The most vulnerable children and families – those at risk of becoming or already involved in Child Protective Servies, foster care and juvenile justice systems continue to share with us that we’ve done little to prevent their suffering, even though we know so much about the factors that contribute to parents’ inability to appropriately care for their children.  We know so much about the relationship between involvement in juvenile crime and the failure of systems to help young people succeed.  We’ve seen some leadership from members of our Congressional Delegation on these issues, and hope that they continue to press for more investment and better services.  We have also seen a disinvestment in prevention by our State Legislators and need to expect more from them.

If citizens remain on the sidelines, these are not the issues that will dominate the airwaves this election year.  You have to be clear about what you want to hear from the candidates.  When a candidate gives a speech in your community, go, and ask about child poverty, about child maltreatment, about educational success. When a campaign calls you for a contribution, a yard sign, or to attend a rally, tell them to first send the candidate’s position papers on topics to improve the lives of children, youth and families in your community. When the local TV anchor signs up to moderate a candidate debate, send an email urging her to ask real questions about preventing child abuse and neglect, or improving the educational outcomes of all children, regardless of their race or ethnicity, where they live or how much their parents earn.

Don’t ever doubt that in a democracy, our voices are still enough to make a real difference.

Portions of this blog were published as an opinion piece in the Detroit Free Press on 1/22/14 and offered to other news outlets around the state.

 

-Michele Corey

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Improving the State of our State

The Governor’s annual State of the State address last night was his opportunity to talk about what he sees as the status of Michigan over the last year, and what he expects to prioritize over the next.  It is pretty easy to document the current state of our state:  rising poverty for kids and families, tied to many costly challenges from cradle to career; some economic progress in Michigan that, while on a positive note is improving the state of our budget revenues, is also a result of shifting economic realities that maintain low wage workers’ high unemployment, underemployment and tenuous connection to the workforce.

How can we change this circumstance?  Because education levels are so directly related to consistent, family supporting employment and the income tied to that employment, at least a part of that answer has to do with building college and career readiness in more of our young people.  At this point, some of our Michigan young people have it, and some don’t.  Why such disparity in this outcome?  High school graduation and subsequent success in post-secondary and career options are symptoms of the success and failure of many systems.  We choose which of these systems we are interested in supporting with public dollars and how they are supported by our public investment each year through our state’s appropriations process.

While the Governor’s budget recommendation (which kick starts the budget process each year) won’t come for a couple of weeks, his State of the State address last night gives an early glimpse into the priorities he will later work with the legislature to fund.  As last year, we are so excited about the Governor’s continued commitment to pre-school access.  It is an essential piece of a more comprehensive strategy for increased college and career success.  In addition to preschool, how should we expect some of the other main points that were made last night be translated into the budget recommendations to come to ensure that Michigan’s economic progress is felt by our most challenged children, youth, their families and communities?

  1. Easing the tax burden for hard working folks.  Well, that is easy enough.  Reinstate earlier cuts to the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit.  Improve the structure and resources directed to our child care subsidy program to increase its ability to serve as an effective work support.
  2. Improving truancy and school safety.  Reward educators for building better bridges to families and community resources that strengthen the ability of parents to support their children’s education, including their consistent attendance at school.  Reward the utilization of best school discipline practice that doesn’t result in loss of educational time.
  3. Expanding education year-round.  Provide year-round educational options for kids beyond the school building by better supporting extended learning opportunities to mitigate summer learning loss and assist in skill building and engagement, particularly those that focus on community, higher education and workforce partners.
  4. Assessing educators and education well.  Assess, support and reward educators, schools and communities for the ability to connect early and often with children, youth and their families and for the ability to make sure that the most challenged students are progressing.  Expand responsibility for educational success beyond the school doors, and support that responsibility accordingly.  Support current work that allows for more competency-based assessments – taking time out of the equation for school success.  Work that has broad agreement through the K-12, workforce and higher education communities.

Other priorities of Michigan’s Children that we expect to see addressed in the Governor’s budget conversations in the coming weeks?   We are really just expecting that our investments match the facts about children, youth and families:

  1. The trajectory toward college and career success begins before birth through disparities in maternal health and education.  Disparities in literacy are evident as early as nine months, and much of the brain is wired by the age of three.  To capitalize on the essential investment the state is making in 4-year old preschool, investment needs to be made earlier.
  2. College and career success is dependent on a variety of factors far beyond the reach of educators and schools.  Consistent support for integrated services like physical and mental health, basic needs, and other things that help kids and their parents focus on education; and providing 2nd and 3rd chances for high school graduation for those who need that extra time and different kinds of opportunities to succeed are also essential.

Michigan’s Children looks forward to working with the Governor and the Legislature to put our public resources behind proven effective strategies that will indeed improve the state of our state.

– Michele Corey

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Resolve to Better Serve Michigan’s Youngest

As gym membership purchases skyrocket and cookie sales take a hit, there’s nothing like the start to a new year to have folks think about all the hopes and wishes they have for a new year.  While I’m not a new year’s resolution kind of gal, I do have some hopes and wishes for young children in Michigan.  And 2014 is a year where much progress can be made with the help of your advocacy efforts as well as Michigan’s recently awarded Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge grant.

At Michigan’s Children, we’ve long been advocates for the state’s young people who face the greatest barriers to opportunities that promote education and life success – children who are disproportionately disadvantaged like children of color and children from low-income families.  And we know the greatest avenue to success is to focus on prevention efforts to mitigate the disparities that emerge early and can persist over a lifetime.  As a state, we’ve clearly made great progress in this arena as evidenced by the significant expansion of the Great Start Readiness Program.  However, we know we have to start before preschool since disparities in cognitive development – which leads to the achievement gap – can emerge as young as nine months of age.  When we provide services for young children prenatally through age three coupled with a high quality preschool program like the Great Start Readiness Program, we can make significant strides towards ensuring all children are prepared for kindergarten while preventing the achievement gap.

As we ramp up preschool services for four-year-olds, Michigan must expand services to families with very young children prenatally through age three. Two key opportunities for bolstering services for this population are to strengthen the subsidized child care system and to expand evidence-based home visiting services.  In essence, ensuring that very young children have the best environments for their learning and development in the two places where they spend their days – at home and in child care while their parents work.  At the same time that the federal government has improved access to home visiting by increasing available funding, Michigan has bolstered the quality of home visiting services by mandating that publicly funded programs be evidence-based or promising programs.  Now, the state must also take responsibility for expanding access to these services since they still reach only a small fraction of the families who are eligible.

Additionally, our subsidized child care system continues to be one of the worst in the nation with woefully low reimbursement rates that are paid on an hourly basis.  And, with infant and toddler care being the most expensive, accessing high quality (read: 5-star rated programs in Great Start to Quality) is next to impossible with the current subsidy structure.  But opportunities to strengthen the child care system exist – especially with Michigan’s Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge (RTT-ELC) Grant award.  With our RTT-ELC grant, Michigan will focus on bolstering child care services to the most challenged families.  For infants and toddlers, a scholarship will be available to families in high needs communities, which will allow more young children access to the highest quality care that promotes healthy development and eliminates the school readiness gap.  While these scholarships are a great model that Michigan can replicate across the state, the RTT-ELC grant will only provide scholarships to a small fraction of the thousands of infants and toddlers who currently receive subsidized care.

More broadly, Michigan will use its RTT-ELC grant funding to provide incentives for more child care providers to participate in Great Start to Quality so that parents can be better informed about the quality of care they select for their children.  And, Michigan will make a concerted effort to support both licensed and unlicensed home-based child care providers to increase the quality of their care.  This is a significant step in the right direction since we know that many families – particularly families with very young children – opt for home-based care for many reasons including affordability, trust, cultural alignment, and convenience.  These opportunities will support parental choice so that parents can make the best possible decision about the care they purchase for their children.

While we have a ways to go to better serve Michigan’s youngest children, I am encouraged by the efforts we have already made and the plans we have laid out in our RTT-ELC grant.  While it would be overly optimistic to say that I hope the state’s “new year’s resolution” is to provide all young children prenatally through age five with the high quality services they need to be prepared for kindergarten, 2014 will prove to be a year where we can make great strides towards this goal.  Won’t you join us in these efforts?  The Governor will be unveiling his state budget proposal for the next fiscal year in February and shortly thereafter, the Legislature will be building the state’s budget.  Now is the time to talk to your legislators about how we can better support Michigan’s struggling children even before they reach preschool – by increasing access to evidence-based home visiting services and expanding and embedding opportunities available through the RTT-ELC into state policy.  2014 must be the year that we make significant strides so that all of Michigan’s most challenged young children can have access to opportunities that will help them thrive.

Learn more about Michigan’s Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge grant on the Michigan Office of Great Start website.

-Mina Hong

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Information for Action

It is that time of year again.  No, I’m not talking about snow, ice or family gatherings.  I’m talking about comprehensive county-level information about children and their families through the 2013 Kids Count in Michigan Data Book released today.  Every year for the last 20 or so, the Michigan League for Public Policy has compiled easy to understand information about Michigan counties across systems and age groups.

For nearly that long, Michigan’s Children and other advocacy partners across the state have been using the information with decision makers to guide policy and program investment priorities, as well as policy and practice improvements in this state.  Over those years we’ve seen improvements and unfortunately some outcomes where we just haven’t been able to move the dial.

One of the serious challenges again highlighted in this year’s Data Book is the continued increase in child poverty across the state.  Michigan’s consistently poor outcomes on this indicator point to the need for different policy and program decisions that actually improve the economic situation of families.  Unfortunately, many decisions made over the last several years have served to further disadvantage families economically.  Cutting supports for low wage workers like the Earned Income Tax Credit are counter-productive.  Michigan’s subsidized child care system needs major changes in order to be a real work support for families in the state.  Workforce development resources need to be much better targeted toward the most challenged families and need to include better supports for education and training.  Beyond workforce supports, programs that improve the educational success of the most challenged young people and adults need to be prioritized.

Another area of grave concern is the continued increase in child abuse and neglect.  The Data Book again indicates disturbing trends in the share of children who have been identified and those confirmed as victims of child maltreatment.  Several things contribute to this distressing information.

  1. Poverty, as mentioned.  Increases in economic stressors for families impact their stability.
  2. At least a decade of disinvestment in programs with proven effectiveness in preventing child abuse and neglect.  We know so much about the risks that lead families into the system, and we need to actually invest in preventing those risks – maybe even state resources, rather than relying entirely on the whims of the federal investment.  Better investments in domestic violence prevention and treatment; in behavioral health assessment and intervention, mental health and substance use/abuse, are required.  And, perhaps most importantly, better supports for parents of the very youngest children are necessary.  Infants are the largest share of any other age group as confirmed victims of abuse and neglect.

As always, the Data Book helps us better define what work needs to be done.  And, as always, it is our responsibility to help our elected officials use that information to make better decisions in the coming year.  So, use Kids Count as a conversation starter.  Even if you haven’t talked with your elected officials before, your county Kids Count data can provide a topic of conversation.  Ask your policy makers what they think about the data, and what plans they have to help address some of the issues of concern.  Help your policy makers understand the context behind some of the numbers.  If you’ve seen improvements in an area, 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?  You can access your county information and other resources to assist with your advocacy at the Michigan League for Public Policy’s website.

We are here to help you, and here to remind policymakers that there is a lot they should be doing to make Michigan better for children, youth and families.

-Michele Corey

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