With recession over, time to reinvest in people and services

A fresh start in the new year could help make a decade of Michigan’s economic woes history.

The Great Recession – as well as some poor choices by Michigan policymakers – saddled the state with rising poverty, lower educational achievement and many cuts in services that are essential to growing a highly skilled workforce. But Michigan can start to move forward once again and restore prosperity by making investments in early childhood programs, K-12, postsecondary education and a competitive workforce, instead of pursuing tax cuts that largely benefit the wealthy few.

The expansion of the Great Start Readiness Program – preschool for 4-year-olds – is, well, a great start. Gov. Rick Snyder and lawmakers made the right decision when they expanded the number of spots to accommodate many more children.

Yet by the time children reach age 4, much of the architecture of the brain is already in place and the opportunity to get kids ready to for kindergarten has diminished. We can make sure more students are ready for school by providing safe learning environments through affordable child care for the state’s most vulnerable children, who are growing up in very low-income homes. Helping working parents afford high-quality child care is a win-win strategy as parents are able to work to support their family and children are engaged in stimulating learning activities.

The state’s program to make child care affordable for low-income people, however, has been dramatically downsized. Today, it’s helping only one-third the people it helped in 2005. This is due to in part to the state’s failure to adjust eligibility for inflation. A decade ago, families with incomes of nearly $30,000 (in today’s dollars) qualified. Today it’s only $22,500 a year for a family of three. Lawmakers must readjust these eligibility requirements and invest funding so more parents can go to work knowing their kids are in a safe and educational environment that is preparing them for school.

Schools are educating our kids with fewer resources than in the past. States across the country made cuts to K-12 education during the recession, but most have restored funding faster than Michigan. After accounting for inflation, Michigan has cut 9.5 percent of its support for the per-pupil foundation since the Great Recession began, according to a national report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

In fact, per-pupil funding this year is lower than 2009, and that’s not even adjusting for inflation. As a result, many districts and parents report larger class sizes, more pay-for-play sports, and elimination of music, gym and other programs.

If voters approve a May ballot proposal to raise revenue for road repairs and new dollars for schools, it will go a long way to protecting K-12 funding and restoring funds cut during the Great Recession. Even with approval, however, lawmakers will need to resist the call for more tax cuts in order to have enough resources to train a highly skilled workforce.

Michigan students graduating from high school face higher college tuitions than earlier generations. Michigan’s average tuition doubled over the past decade as state support for higher education has dropped. This makes it more difficult for low-income students to pursue a college education, and it means students are leaving college with ever-growing debt. Lawmakers must begin investing more in our state’s community colleges and universities so that more young people are prepared for the workforce and ready to help build our economy.

As the economy continues to recover, so will tax revenues, and Michigan can begin to undo some of the damage that has been done to education and other vital services. Investing in people rather than cutting taxes is key to restoring prosperity and rebuilding Michigan’s strong middle class.

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan.

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