Sandbox Party: An election year for kids

August 24, 2010
Photo of Jane Zehnder-Merrell

Jane Zehnder-Merrell

Thursday, the Sandbox Party will hold its conference to mobilize a broad range of stakeholders to support a coherent system of early care and education in Michigan.  The League is proud to be a supporter of this important event, designed to draw candidates’ attention to the needs of children.

An early care and education system would assure that children are born healthy; that they thrive and develop on track without suffering from untreated health conditions or avoidable developmental delay;  that they enter the K-12 system ready to succeed; and that they can read proficiently by the end of the third grade.

This goal is also the very first  strategy recommended  in the Early Warning report (pdf) recently issued by the Casey Foundation. It presented four recommendations  to increase the share of fourth graders proficient in reading.

In Michigan (pdf) only three of every 10 fourth-graders could read proficiently by the fourth grade, according to the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress. Children who can read proficiently by fourth grade are prepared to learn by reading as they advance academically.  Those without at least a modest skill level will be at high risk of being retained in grade and dropping out of school.

In reality all of us are stakeholders in this Sandbox effort as the state struggles to move forward economically and to increase the educational attainment of more residents so they can compete in the global economy.  By 2018 estimates suggest that two of every three jobs in Michigan will require training or education beyond high school.   

Right now we’re still trying to make sure more youth complete their high school education, particularly low-income and minority youth.  The first step to reaching that goal will require making sure that more children have what they need in early childhood to prepare them to be lifelong learners. 

— Jane Zehnder-Merrell


High cost of higher ed cuts

August 9, 2010

Jacqui Broughton

Going to college is expensive. It’s also one of the keys to getting out of or staying out of poverty, reducing your chances of unemployment, and attaining higher income.

Unfortunately, with tuition at both two-year and four-year institutions rising faster than the rate of inflation and median household income falling, many students are finding it harder and harder to go to college. (See our new report Pulling the Plug on Michigan’s Future: Why Draining Resources Hurts Tomorrow’s Workforce.)

What’s to blame for the increase in tuition? There are several factors, such as expenses relating to health care, fuel costs and some courses being more expensive to teach than others. However, a lot of it has to do with the state, over a period of years, cutting aid to higher ed. 

Over the last eight years (2002-2010) the state’s general fund has shrunk by 12.6 percent, but state funding to community colleges, public-four year schools, and state-funded financial aid programs has dropped by 15 percent. This lack of state support, coupled with the factors listed above has caused tuition at Michigan’s four-year public institutions to skyrocket. Over the same eight-year period, tuition and fees increased 88 percent at Michigan’s four-year public colleges and 40 percent at two-year institutions.

Overall, Michigan’s investment in higher ed ranked fifth from the bottom in the nation between 2005 and 2009 and our tuition increases rank seventh-highest over the same time period.

Because of these cuts in state support, causing tuition to soar, tuition is representing an ever-increasing share of household income for families at all levels. This especially hurts families at or below the poverty level (which is $17,285 for a family of three) who have the most to gain by going to college.

However, even as tuition rises and aid programs (including many need-based aid programs offered by the state) have been cut or drastically reduced, enrollment has not dropped as more families and individuals understand the need for education beyond high school.

This is causing more students to finance their college education through student loans. In 2008, over half of all four-year graduates had student loan debt, which averaged just over $22,000, and half of all full-time freshmen took out student loans, up from just 40 percent in 2001. 

Michigan cannot afford to have its young people graduating with tens of thousands of dollars in educational  debt due to our cutting aid to the institutions that will ensure Michigan stays competitive in a changing economy.  At a time where jobs are shifting from skills-based to knowledge-based, is it worth cutting off aid to the institutions that invest in our future?

— Jacqui Broughton

Michigan Is Ours!

July 19, 2010

Jan Hudson

The League of Women Voters of Michigan recently completed a project called Michigan Is Ours! that documents the loss of state dollars to fund public services over the last 10 years, in part due to tax policies that reduce taxes. The group is advocating for a reversal of this trend.

In its background information, the League of Women Voters cites the negative consequences  to state services  because of the dramatic decline in state revenues, including:

  • the reduction in state workforce– 18 percent, over the last seven years.
  • the dramatic decline in public safety funding– $3 billion, since September 11, 2001.
  • the astonishing decline in state investments in higher education.

The group’s members believe that the “T” word is not a terrible word, but is a necessary word if we are going to have quality public services.  They further believe voters are concerned about such services as education, public safety, social services, health care, employment services, safe food and water, parks, libraries, and roads, and are willing to pay for them. 

As part of this project, the League of Women Voters has created a series of postcards on specific public services to be sent to legislators. These postcards have a simple message: they affirm the voter’s support for a specific public service and further affirm the voter’s willingness to pay more taxes to support it.  They encourage legislators to pursue tax changes to increase state revenues to support these essential public services.

The Michigan League for Human Services also advocates for tax policy changes to increase state revenues to support key public services.  Numerous options are available to policymakers.  Please see our Facts Matter report for more information. 

If you think a change in direction is in order, and support public services, including adequate taxes to pay for them, let your legislators know.  You can contact Jackie Benson at the Michigan League for Human Services,, for a supply of postcards.

Thanks to the League of Women Voters for creating such an easy way for us to communicate our priorities and willingness to pay more taxes for public services to our legislators.

— Jan Hudson

Will Michigan be ready for 2018?

July 8, 2010

Peter Ruark

We at the Michigan League for Human Services have written extensively about the need for Michigan to invest in postsecondary education and training. A new report from Georgetown University called Help Wanted provides projections for future job demand that underscore this need.

According to the report, the number of Michigan jobs requiring postsecondary education will grow by 116,000 between 2008 and 2018, while jobs for workers with no education past high school (including dropouts) will grow by only 22,000.

In Michigan, 62 percent of jobs in 2018 will require some postsecondary education and 28 percent will require a bachelor’s or graduate degree. These figures are close to projections for the nation as a whole.

Jobs that require some level of postsecondary training (such as an associate’s degree or a recognized vocational credential) but not a bachelor’s degree are called “middle skill jobs.” This is where a large part of the job growth will be in the next several years.

What is driving the increasing need for postsecondary education? According to the report, it is technology. Throughout our country’s history, technological development has favored workers with more education, and in turn, demand for these workers grows as the technology spreads throughout the economy.

So what are Michigan and the United States doing in light of all this? The good news is that No Worker Left Behind has been very successful in its first three years. It has enrolled more than 131,000 workers, and 75 percent of the 58,000 program completers have found new employment or retained a job that had been at risk.

However, in contrast to the $40 million in state funds that Gov. Jennifer Granholm recommended for its first year, the state only invested $4.5 million in No Worker Left Behind this fiscal year, with the vast majority of funding coming from the federal government.

This may have worked fine when there was federal money to be had. But, according to the Lansing State Journal, federal funding will be cut by $92.4 million as the need in other states becomes greater and as stimulus funds begin to dry up. Because workers already in training programs will receive highest priority for the remaining funding, No Worker Left Behind will not be able to enroll many new trainees in the near future.

There has to be serious monetary investment in adult learning by both the state and the nation if we are going to have a workforce that can meet the job demands of the upcoming decade. If Michigan plans to be competitive, it must make sure it has the money to upskill its workforce when federal funds are scarce.

Right now our state doesn’t have the money. And though it sounds like a broken record to say so again, we won’t have the money until we devise a way to increase state revenues.

— Peter Ruark

Urgent! Improving literacy in Michigan

June 2, 2010

Jane Zehnder-Merrell

Last week over 50 literacy experts from throughout the state gathered at Michigan State University’s Kellogg Center to brainstorm critical goals for a comprehensive literacy plan for Michigan.

The plan, which will be submitted for funding from the federal Striving Readers Comprehensive Literacy Program, must address the needs of children from birth through grade 12. Workgroups focused on the literacy needs of multiple populations, including English Language Learners and alternative education students, as well as issues in teacher preparation, certification and ongoing professional development.

This effort comes at an opportune moment as the need for a more highly skilled and literate workforce is becoming urgent in order to attract better employment opportunities to the state.

The literacy level of Michigan students is a concern as reflected in the recent report by the national KIDS COUNT project at the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The report  sounded an alarm at the relatively small share—less than one-third of the nation’s fourth-graders—who could demonstrate proficiency on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading test. Most children who cannot read by the end of the third grade continue to struggle with reading as high schoolers. They are also more likely to be retained in a grade or drop out.    

Although Michigan’s test results were not significantly different from the national average, they earned the state a ranking of 34th among the 50 states. Massachusetts, which ranked first among the states, had almost half of its students performing at or above proficient.

Massachusetts was one of the first states to develop and implement a state literacy plan to create cohesive policies to help all students achieve proficiency in reading, writing, and oral language. It’s worth noting that the very first literacy goal defined in the Massachusetts plan is to prevent the literacy achievement gap from starting. To that end a number of Early Education and Care initiatives have been launched for children, ages 0-5.

Michigan policymakers should take note of this emphasis on prevention and the importance of investing in young children and their families. Unfortunately they are dismantling such programs in their “cuts only” approach to the state budget.

— Jane Zehnder-Merrell

Adult ed — more important than ever

May 25, 2010

Peter Ruark

We’ve all heard about how bad Michigan’s economy is, and how we have to attract more employers to the state and create an environment that is conducive to entrepreneurism in order to create more jobs. All true!

But what is often left out of this discussion is that businesses can’t thrive in Michigan without skilled workers, and that any investment in Michigan jobs must include an investment in workforce development.

Gone are the days when young adults could plan on getting a job in the automobile industry right after high school graduation. Today, it is nearly impossible for someone with no postsecondary education or skilled work experience to obtain an entry-level job that provides decent pay and opportunities for promotion.

Not only should high school students have postsecondary plans in place, but dislocated workers should be thinking about upskilling in order to make themselves more marketable in today’s work environment.

So far, so good. There are plenty of trade schools and community colleges in the state for those who plan to enter or further a career in the trades, and financial aid programs and No Worker Left Behind are in place to help them afford it.

The problem is: What about the many workers whose math, reading, or literacy skills are too low to be able to enter into and succeed in a postsecondary vocational skills program?

That, of course, is where adult education comes in. A strong adult education system will prepare students for the rigorous skills training they will need to undergo in order to get jobs that are in demand in today’s job market.

Even jobs in traditional sectors such as automobile repair, manufacturing, and building construction require a higher mastery of technological skills than they did two decades ago.

Yet Michigan has actually decreased the amount of money it is investing in adult education. Michigan spends 28 percent of what it did in 2001 and only 11 percent of what it did in 1996! And accordingly, program enrollment is 63 percent lower and program completion is 53 percent lower than in the 2001-2002 school year. (See this new League analysis to find out more.)

Obviously, less investment means less workers helped. Michigan’s Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth, the state’s community colleges, representatives from the K-12 system, advocacy organizations (including Michigan League for Human Services), and other key players have been meeting for several years to improve Michigan’s delivery of adult education through the formation of innovative programs and regional partnerships.

The state adopted the recommendations put forward by the group. However, it needs to back up the new ideas with funding. Keeping adult education allocations at barely over a quarter of what they were several years ago is not the right direction for Michigan to be going. Let’s dedicate more state funding for adult education.

— Peter Ruark

Reading before fourth grade matters

May 18, 2010

Judy Putnam

Children who cannot read by the end of third grade cannot succeed. As they get older, they tend to drop out of school, pushing good-paying jobs beyond their reach. We’re writing the scripts of their lives by the age of 9 and they don’t have happy endings.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s new national KIDS COUNT report, Early Warning! Why Reading by the End of Third Grade Matters is out today, and it’s a must-read reminder about the importance of reading by the end of third grade.

The report’s major message is that children are learning to read until the ages of 8 and 9. After that they read to learn. Children without that essential skill quickly fall behind.

Michigan does not look good in this report. We rank 34th among the states on reading proficiency among fourth-graders as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. That’s a rigorous test given in each state to a sample of students. 

In Michigan, 70 percent of fourth-graders tested were not considered proficient. That compares with 68 percent nationally. In addition to average scores, we have large huge gaps by race and income. 

Michigan, Wisconsin and Louisiana had the worst ranking in the country among African American students with 91 percent not considered proficient in reading. In Michigan 64 percent of white students are not proficient.

Another large gap is the difference based on income. Among low-income fourth-graders, 85 percent were not proficient. Among higher-income peers, only 60 percent were not proficient.

Early childhood opportunities, good health, safe communities, good schools and teachers, quality child care, parents and grandparents reading aloud often to young children, early intervention for children with delays and good school attendance all play a role. For advocates interested in rewriting the story of the cycle of poverty, these early years offer the place to do that.

— Judy Putnam