Time for state to restore funding for education and struggling families

As Gov. Rick Snyder and the Michigan Legislature return from their holiday break, they will be refining their agendas for 2014 and, as always, at the top of the list are expected to be strategies for growing the state’s economy.

Based on their recent track records, we can expect a continued focus on “competitiveness,” narrowly defined as reductions in state and local taxes. What should be on the list, but often excluded, are investments in the services and infrastructure needed to create jobs and fuel economic growth such as effective public schools, public transportation and public safety, as well as tax reforms that ensure that the state can generate sufficient funding to pursue its economic-development goals.

While there has been some recent good news, with projections of growth in personal income and more than $1 billion in revenues above earlier projections, it is clear that the recession continues unabated for many Michigan residents, families and children. The state’s game plan for economic recovery has included only certain players, and has disproportionately benefited businesses and the wealthiest state residents.

For many Michiganians, the last decade was a rough one by many measures. The state suffered double-digit unemployment rates, and even now, during a period of recovery from the national Great Recession, ranks third in the country in unemployment, with nearly 425,000 unable to find jobs.

Even worse, the state’s children have suffered. According to recent Kids Count data, more than one in every three young Michigan children ages 0-5 lives with a family whose income is so low that they need federal food assistance, an increase of more than 50% since 2005. And child poverty has been spiking, with 560,000 children, or one of every four, now poor – enough to fill the Michigan State University stadium almost eight times.

Michigan’s recent economic development strategies have resulted in a tale of two states, one which cannot end with economic growth and prosperity for all. In one, residents are moving forward because they can afford to take advantage of the highest quality child care and preschool programs, attend top-notch public schools and institutions of higher learning and find affordable healthcare, mental health and other services.

In the other, residents, and especially children, are being left behind in the face of public policies that have disproportionately increased their taxes, created public schools with large deficits and larger classrooms, and reduced access to the basic assistance needed to ensure shelter and access to food.

A recent report and video by the Michigan League for Public Policy outlines 10 steps Michigan must take to include all of its residents in the economic recovery. It is an agenda for long-term economic prosperity that includes investments in education from early childhood through higher education, access to the health and mental health services needed for a healthy workforce, basic income security for those who cannot work or find jobs and support for the community services businesses and consumers rely on.

The report also calls for reforms that modernize Michigan’s tax system, including those that ensure that businesses are paying their share of taxes, expand the sales tax to selected services and Internet sales to reflect the way people currently spend their money, and scrutinize tax breaks to ensure that they contribute to economic growth.

Sadly, while the automobile industry and the national recession were driving the state’s economic decline over the last decade, policymakers exacerbated Michigan’s fiscal problems through the tenacious and misguided pursuit of tax and related budget cuts as the prescription for the state’s ills. The sales pitch for business tax cuts, including the 83% reduction adopted in 2011, was that they would increase the state’s competitiveness and create jobs—a belief not supported by the evidence.

In fact, higher taxes are often associated with better state economic performance when they finance the engines of the economy, including effective schools, community colleges and universities; the roads and bridges needed to conduct commerce; police and firefighters; and the libraries, parks and other community services needed to attract and retain a well-trained and educated workforce.

Michigan cannot afford to lock in the damage to public services that occurred over the last decade, accepting growing school deficits and city bankruptcies, reduced public safety, and crumbling roads and bridges as the “new normal.” The governor and lawmakers have an opportunity this year to change course by dedicating a portion of the $1 billion in unexpected revenues to the 10-step plan that research shows will grow the economy for the benefit of all residents, and create long-term prosperity.

Pat Sorenson is a senior policy analyst at the Michigan League for Public Policy. A longtime child and family advocate, Sorenson holds a law degree and a master’s in social work.

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Tue, 01/07/2014 - 9:59am
In #3 of the referenced report by the MLPP, you argue that higher education in the form of college degrees is essential for a better Michigan. I would argue that college degrees are not the way to go for most, but rather a trade school / apprentice program may be more suitable for those who do not now attend college. There are many occupations such a machinist / tool and die maker, electrician, plumber, aircraft maintenance, auto mechanic, and many others where the specialty knowledge is not taught in college. The pay of most of these occupations is well above average, and the demand for employees is constant or growing. Better to choose a career than to just go to college with the goal of obtaining a "general degree".
Mike R
Tue, 01/07/2014 - 10:36am
Bravo, Ms. Sorenson! It's time moderates united to call out the excesses of the Radical Right that has co-opted all three branches of Michigan's government for its own miserly, mean-spirited, self-enriching interests.
Tue, 01/07/2014 - 11:42am
I completely agree with Rich. Most people - not just kids - learn best by doing. I organized a job fair at our elementary school and the kids were most fascinated by the aircraft mechanic who brought in a wheel and explained how crucial it is to make sure it does its job. Not choosing the college path right after high school does not mean that it cannot be done at a later time. I grew up in Germany and am the product of their apprenticeship program. The school system starts with 1st grade not KG and the 1st high school degree is obtained after 9 years. If grades are good enough the student can continue one more year and obtain the 2nd degree. My parents supported studying abroad and in 11th grade I spent one year in the US as a foreign exchange student. After my return, I continued for three more years at a business high school and obtained my 3rd degree which would have allowed me to study at the university. I excelled in Math and Languages but wanted to work instead. Normal apprenticeship programs are 3 years but with the 3 degrees it was automatically reduced by 6 months. I worked 4 days a week at a company in international transportation and went 1 day to a business school in the corresponding field. I passed the Chamber of Industry and Commerce exam and moved to the US. I started as an export agent and moved my way up to Branch Manager of one of the largest International Freight Forwarders in the world - with only an apprenticeship. Coincidentally my husband, our 18 year old and I had a conversation about MAT2 last night. My husband has a Bachelor in Computer Science and feels strongly about college being the best path and if most people think that way then trade jobs will not be filled and their salaries will be skyrocketing. It is currently similar in Germany - electricians and plumbers are highly paid professions and apprenticeships are not as sought after as in the past. Just by looking at our three children it is obvious that one of them will go straight to college, for one of them an apprenticeship would be best with maybe college later and the third one is the athlete and artist who is currently taking high school Japanese I in 7th grade and loves it therefore an exchange year in Japan could be an option. 3 kids - 3 different paths. Any new money going towards education should be used for more innovative programs such as MAT2 to give different types of learners a variety of options.
Tue, 01/07/2014 - 1:15pm
According to the OECD the US is at the top of the heap for spending on K - 12 (http://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_cmd.asp) and Michigan sits pretty much in the middle as far as the US is concerned. Even with this level of spending our national results are less than impressive. So you say we need more money?
Peter Ruark
Wed, 01/08/2014 - 11:54am
Rich and Beate: Your comments are appreciated. Pat did not single out four-year degrees as essential for building Michigan; in the column her reference is to "community colleges and universities." The League 's position is that for most individuals, some form of postsecondary education is essential for job market success, and that Michigan should keep postsecondary education accessible for its future workforce including low-income individuals. Postsecondary education includes not only four-year degrees, but two-year Associate Degrees and occupational credentials (such as certificates or licenses) that can be attained in less than two years. For many workers with families, the preferred postsecondary credential is one that can be attained in as little as six months, often involving on-the-job training. Community colleges are in a good position to provide such credentials and many of them do, so investment in community colleges is a way to help low-paid workers increase their earnings and to meet market demands for occupational skills.
Wed, 01/08/2014 - 11:57pm
Why is it always about policies and government spending and never about the individuals and what they can do? Why is it always the politicians’ responsibilities to address the dire situations of individuals? Why can’t there be means and methods that local people can become supportive in the communities? Why aren’t we having discussions about how people have choices, how to understand those choices? Why aren’t successes held up to the communities rather than focusing only on the exceptions? We have 10 times more people with jobs than without, why can Ms. Sorenson only see spending and ignore learning from the employed? Why doesn’t Ms. Sorenson look for successes, investigate those successes so we can learn from them? Ms. Sorenson talks about college degrees, but somehow ignores that it takes effort by the individual to achieve such a degree. It seems we have an industry of advocates that want the status quo and to spend more money to keep. They don’t offer no new ideas or no new ways of thinking to try to find new ideas. If what we have been doing isn’t improving things than why aren’t we trying to find new/different ways to change the status quo? As best I can tell if all you look at is the exceptions then all you will get is the exceptions. Why don’t we start trying to find the successes and learn from them to help offer people new ways they can try to change things?
Robert Burgess
Sun, 01/12/2014 - 6:53am
There are two Michigans. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 22 percent of Michigan's school age children live in poverty (2012 small area income and poverty estimates released in December 2013.) Our children are the most likely age group to live in poverty. However, the poverty rate (not the free/reduced lunch count which is much higher) varies greatly from school district to school district. In Berrien County alone, the range is from a school age poverty rate of 9 percent in St. Joseph to 50 percent in next door Benton Harbor. Either is too high, but Benton Harbor's is extreme. And it is not just Benton Harbor, seven other school districts in Berrien, Cass, or Van Buren Counties have school age poverty rates of greater than 30 percent. Those are the facts. So,a the question is how do we change it? Or, if you prefer, how do we empower those communities (and individuals within those communities) with higher poverty rates for their children to change it? Ignoring it does not change it.
Sun, 01/12/2014 - 1:39pm
Robert, It seems we need to decide and describe what we want changed before we can draw people together to work effectively to achieve change. What do you see needs to be changed; the means for individuals to move themselves out of poverty or quality of life available to people that are in poverty? My concern is that 'poverty' has become a political rallying catch phrase that has little common meaning thus prevents effective action for change.
Joe F.
Sun, 01/12/2014 - 3:37pm
Like all liberals, Ms. Sorenson's ideas have nothing to do with solutions, but everything to do with spending the public's scarce, and increasingly unavailable tax dollars.
Barry Matthews
Sun, 01/12/2014 - 5:03pm
A loooong time ago (1966) when I graduated from high school, and up until about the mid 1980's a high school diploma could get an individual a well paid job. Many of these jobs paid much better that the Fish and Wildlife Tech job that I studied four years at GVSC to obtain. Even in that long ago era public education was fully paid by the taxpayers through high school. And college costs were such that I could work summers and other vacations and pay my own college expenses. Today, education beyond a high school diploma is required to find a job that pays well. This education must be funded by the individual, not society. (In the 1960's Michigan taxpayers funded universities at 80% and students picked up the rest. Today those numbers are reversed) These educational costs are very difficult to obtain with the jobs available to one without an education already. So we have parents mortgaging their homes or tapping their retirement or students borrowing heavily to fund an education. And businesses once paid for apprentice programs. Now they expect society to give them workers able to do the job when they walk through the door, no matter how specialized the work might be. We must rethink our educational system and its needs. We also must be ready to fully fund it. An individual does need to accept responsibility for his/her own future, BUT it is society's responsibility to supply the opportunity for that individual to reach his/her full potential.
Sun, 01/12/2014 - 5:30pm
Barry, Have you considered why companies are shifting more of their desired training to government support orgainzations? Could it be that the politicians have seen providing such training another way they can spend taxpayer's money to make themselves look more caring and supportive of the workers. Is there the same confidence in the quality of education a holder high school diploma has today relative to even a generation ago? If you don't trust the quality and possibly the content of the education then you would need to look elsewhere. It use to be that a high school diploma also indicated a certain amount of respnsibility (work ehtic), being on time, being respectful of others including teachers, being willing to arrive in proper dress, etc. There was much a high school diploma implied, I am not sure it still does.