MLPP Blog: Factually Speaking

Help Wanted: Michigan lacks teacher diversity

Added October 12th, 2017 by Laura Millard Ross | Email This Entry Email This Entry
Laura Millard Ross

As part of our U.S. history unit on the Progressive Era, my co-teacher and I have included a project called “Be the Change.” Through this, we ask students to tackle some of the major issues facing young people in our nation, including environmental problems, economic disadvantages and racial inequities.

The students read articles, watch videos and listen to podcasts to educate themselves about the problem. They then develop a plan to “be the change,” modeling their actions after activists from the progressive era.

As I curated sources for the project a couple years ago, this article struck me. It highlights the utter lack of diversity when it comes to teachers in the U.S. And sharing it with my students, many of whom are from the very races and ethnicities that are so underrepresented in teaching, prompted some powerful discussions. So when I read the League’s recent report on the state budget as a tool for racial equity, I was not surprised to see the statistics on teacher diversity, but I was again troubled.

quote 1In Michigan, students of color made up 33% of the population of public schools in 2015-2016. But 91% of teachers are White. Study after study after study has shown that having at least one teacher of the same race increases the likelihood of school success for children of color. But that’s not happening in Michigan.

I care deeply about this issue and want to learn more about its roots. But I am a white female high school teacher. Part of being an effective teacher or an effective advocate is knowing what you don’t know, and being open to learn from others’ experience and expertise, so I sought answers from people working more closely on diversity in teaching.

I first went to Dr. Terry K. Flennaugh at Michigan State University. Flennaugh is an Assistant Professor of race, culture and equity in education and the coordinator of urban education initiatives at the university.

“We know that greater diversity is better for all students, not just students of color. The folks who help usher in learning shouldn’t look like just one person,” Flennaugh said.

quote 3Why do teachers look the way they do? As with most issues involving race, place and ethnicity, it’s complicated, says Flennaugh.

He made clear that the problem is caused by things beyond the scope of academics—that people from underrepresented backgrounds face many barriers. But he did pin down some issues that crop up at the university level.

“Teaching is a highly regulated profession—it has to be. But we’re held to all these standards, and some of the accreditation requirements have disproportionately negatively impacted communities of color,” Flennaugh said.

The biggest requirement that falls into this category is the standardized test. Right now, the state of Michigan uses the SAT as its “test of basic skills.” In order to begin student teaching, it’s required that a student meet or exceed the career and college readiness benchmark on that exam.

Leah Breen, Director of Educator Services with the Michigan Department of Education (MDE), agrees that the test is not an ideal measurement.

“We know that standardized tests are going to show racial bias—any standardized test shows a disparity between White students and students of color. We also don’t have any research that definitively shows that success on these tests indicates that someone is going to be a successful teacher,” Breen said.

Breen’s department, which oversees teacher preparation, is well aware of the lack of teachers of color entering the teaching profession.

children-of-color-white-teacher350x232According to Breen, MDE consistently examines its internal policies and procedures to see what might be creating barriers to anyone who might want to teach but feels disenfranchised.

“Michigan’s stats mirror the nation’s stats when it comes to diversity in the workplace, and that’s an issue,” Breen said. “We’re working every day to make this profession more desirable for young people.”

One approach they’re taking involves the standardized test.

“One benefit of the SAT is that all students in Michigan are able to take it free of charge during their junior year of high school. So that means one less hurdle for students as they try to begin their student teaching program.”

Another way the department is using the standardized test to its advantage is through a campaign to reach out to high school students.

“We’re implementing a plan to send letters home to any student who earns the ‘career and college’ readiness cut score on the test their junior year. The letter will congratulate them and let them know they’ve already met a benchmark…that their path to becoming a teacher has already begun. We do feel like this is a way to reach out to a wider body of candidates.”

Of course, only 10% of African-American students and 19% of Latino students in Michigan met or exceeded the SAT benchmark for college readiness in 2015-16. So we can’t depend on these measures to increase diversity among teachers.

“We can’t just blame a screening test, though,” said Flennaugh. “Students who have positive experiences with a profession tend to go into those fields. Black students don’t always have those positive experiences with teachers.”

Diverse Classroom600x337

There’s also the practical side of the issue, says Flennaugh. Teaching is not a moneymaker, so students who come from a disadvantaged background and want to rise up don’t see a teacher prep program, with its four years of classes and fifth year unpaid internship, as a lucrative option. Plus, the starting salary is less than desirable for someone looking to find a way up the economic ladder.

“We also have asked universities to increase clinical experiences in urban areas—giving future teachers the opportunity to work with more racially diverse students and perhaps provide better access for student teachers of color,” Breen said of the state’s motion toward greater diversity.

But, Breen adds, teacher diversity can’t come from one department. It’s got to come from the districts. And the universities. And the Legislature. And the communities.

Flennaugh agrees.

“This is a systemic problem. We’re not going to solve it by tweaking something only at the university level,” he said.

And as students in districts around the state become more diverse, the problem will only become more conspicuous.

Both Breen and Flennaugh realize there’s no quick fix toward increasing teacher diversity; they also agree that more must be done to improve lives of people of color beyond the scope of academics.

quote 2Viewing the state budget through a racial equity lens would go a long way in identifying gaps early on, giving our students a much better chance of seeing a teacher who looks like them. It’s something I’m working on in my job at the League that could inform my job as a teacher, even as a white woman.

A dictum of many teachers is “They don’t care what you know until they know that you care,” and it has always been true in my case. When it comes to diversity, it seems applicable, as well.

One of Flennaugh’s biggest points was this: “I worry about the idea that representation alone will solve the problem. The teacher, regardless of whether he looks like me, needs to make an attempt to understand me,” Flennaugh said.

As a secondary teacher, I am committed to understanding my students better each day. But I think our broader commitment should be to do what we can to make sure our students look to the front of the class and see teachers who better reflect our society.

The League will continue to work on identifying racial disparities in Michigan, including the lack of diversity in teaching, and how we can change public policy to address them. And I personally will continue to do my part to support my students, my school and my profession, including exploring some of the solutions that experts have developed to recruit and retain teachers of color.

— Laura Millard Ross, Communications Associate

Trump, GOP tax cuts aren’t worth it

Added October 10th, 2017 by Rachel Richards | Email This Entry Email This Entry
Rachel Richards

Ask anyone if they want a tax cut and more money in their pocket at the end of the year, and the answer will likely be yes.

But what if you found out that you, as a middle-class Michiganian, would bring home a few hundred dollars more a year, while the richest 1% in Michigan, those making over $500,000 a year, would take home 174 times what you got?

And what if these tax cuts also came at the expense of services that Michiganians rely on every day— food assistance, healthcare coverage, education, financial aid for college, and many other programs that help Michigan residents make ends meet?

Because that’s exactly what is going on in Congress right now.

Congress and President Donald Trump are talking about giving average Americans a tax cut. Their blueprint for tax reform uses buzz words like “tax relief for middle-class families,” “simplicity,” and “providing greater fairness.” The blueprint makes it sound like a good deal.

However, when you look at the details, the proposal is not much different than the vague framework that was released months ago, which would target the greatest tax relief to wealthy corporations and taxpayers and would be paid for by significant cuts to the things we rely on most.ITEP Graphic- Trump Tax Plan & MI

And when we look at the numbers, the message is clear. In Michigan, 62.5% of the tax savings would go to those in the top 1%, who make more than $500,000, according to recent data from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. While the poorest Michigan residents would see an average tax cut of $70—and the Michigan middle class a $440 tax cut—those at the top would see a tax cut of about $76,560. Michigan’s millionaires, who represent just 0.2% of the state’s population, would get 47.3% of the cuts, at an average of $253,500.

What’s more is that these deficit-increasing tax cuts would come at a cost to programs that millions of Michigan residents use and rely on day after day.

Budget proposals from President Trump, the House and the Senate all seem to follow the same guidelines and plan to slash healthcare coverage including Medicaid and Medicare, leave more Michigan households hungry by cutting vital food assistance and make deep cuts to programs that help Michigan residents make ends meet. They also plan deep cuts to non-defense discretionary spending, which helps support our K-12 schools, environmental protection, low-income housing and infrastructure, among other needs. These are programs that are necessary to continuing to move the state and the nation—and their economies—forward.

All of these cuts just to put more money into the pockets of our wealthiest corporations and Michiganians.

These tax cuts aren’t worth their price.

— Rachel Richards, Legislative Coordinator

Healthcare win shows power of people over politics

Added October 5th, 2017 by Gilda Z. Jacobs | Email This Entry Email This Entry
Gilda Z. Jacobs

From the First Tuesday newsletter
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Millions of Michigan residents still have healthcare today and it’s all thanks to you. For the last nine months, the League and our partners, passionate advocates and concerned consumers have been fighting to protect the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and the care it provides. And last week, we all notched another big win, and a pivotal one at that, with the failure of the U.S. Senate to take a vote on the Cassidy-Graham healthcare bill.

Photo Credit: Molly Adams

Photo Credit: Molly Adams


This comes after the successful defeats of the American Health Care Act and the Better Care Reconciliation Act earlier in the year, but Cassidy-Graham was a last-ditch effort to try to pass something before Sept. 30, when procedural rules changed that upped the number of votes needed to pass the bill, making its passage nearly impossible.

In the final days, the bill’s sponsors were making specific tweaks to court undecided votes and sweeten the pot for certain holdout states, but in the end, it was still not enough and the bill failed even to make it to the floor.

That’s because no matter what President Donald Trump and Senate Republican leaders said or did to push their ACA repeal, trying both the carrot and the stick approach, it was no match for the personal stories and good old-fashioned grassroots advocacy by the people whose care was in jeopardy and the people and organizations that support them—YOU!

michigan map with people 478x525Millions of people in Michigan would have been devastated by a repeal of the ACA. But supporters like you made your voices heard at every turn, attending town halls, rallies and protests; speaking out and spreading the word on social media; and calling, writing and emailing your members of Congress to keep up the pressure.

Whether you shared a personal story of how you would be affected or championed the benefits of the ACA as a whole to our residents, our state budget and our economy, you made a huge difference. You proved that advocacy works—people still have power and can have a collective impact, even in the face of stacked odds and extreme partisanship and opposition. President Trump and Congress tried three times to repeal the ACA, and you were there at every turn to fend it off. And while the president has a loud and powerful voice, it’s still no match for all of our voices in unison.

We have to remember that unity as we keep fighting, because while we have earned the right to celebrate, the push to repeal the ACA will surely continue. And many other battles await our urgent attention and action now that the focus shifts away from the ACA.

Preoccupied with repealing the ACA, Congress failed to act to reauthorize the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) that 120,000 Michigan kids depend on, and we need to keep pushing for that. The U.S. House of Representatives and Senate are expected to work on their respective federal budget proposals this week. The House budget continues many of President Trump’s ill-advised proposals and contains devastating cuts to a variety of programs, including Medicaid and SNAP food assistance. We already have an easy website set up to help you contact Congress about the budget, so please do so today. And the fight is getting underway over President Trump’s ridiculous tax plan that raises taxes on people who are struggling in order to give huge cuts to his wealthy friends. In fact, the Senate’s budget blueprint included significant, deficit-increasing tax cuts that would likely lead to cuts in programs that American residents need the most.

Our work is far from done. But protecting the Affordable Care Act was a big win. And more importantly, it has provided an easy-to-follow blueprint for successful advocacy. Every one of you has the power to make a difference in improving public policy, and I encourage you all to keep speaking out as we continue to send a message to Washington and Lansing about the type of state we want Michigan to be: a state that welcomes and supports all people, including upholding healthcare rather than attacking it.

— Gilda Z. Jacobs

From Charlottesville to Lansing, we must tackle racial equity

Added September 29th, 2017 by Pat Sorenson | Email This Entry Email This Entry
Pat Sorenson

Like so many across the country, I struggled with the racism laid bare in Charlottesville. While I was not surprised by its existence, I couldn’t help but recoil from the highly personal nature of the hate language that was heard around the world, and the sense of entitlement with which it was expressed.

ClassroomIt is yet another reminder of how far we have to go in this country and it can feel overwhelming. At times like these, I believe that we all need to find actions that we can take—however small they may appear—to address the deep divides in our country, state and neighborhoods.

At the League, we are scrutinizing state budget and policy decisions to see if they are helping to create more equity for children and families of color or are actually contributing to the problem, even if unintentionally.

What is clear is that state budgets and policies that are “colorblind” can perpetuate pervasive and unacceptable outcomes for the state’s children of color.

One example is the passage in Michigan of a law that allows—under some circumstances—for third-graders to be held back if they are not reading proficiently. The law was well-intentioned. Lawmakers understood the importance of early reading to future school success and adopted a law to focus public schools and resources on the problem of low reading proficiency.

BB-Chart 13However, without sufficient funds to invest in the early years—from birth through third grade—the retention law could actually contribute to growing racial and ethnic disparities. In the 2015-2016 school year, 56% of African-American and 38% of Latino third-graders were not reading proficiently and could have been subject to grade retention if the policy had been implemented that year, compared to 21% of their White peers.

To avoid an inequitable outcome from the third-grade reading bill, state leaders will need to simultaneously provide schools the resources they need to improve reading skills, and address realities outside the classroom that are inexorably tied to student achievement and success in reading, including the well-documented impact of poverty.

So far, too little has been invested to overcome the historical and cumulative impact of discrimination and poverty on children’s ability to learn and achieve. The data show that women of color are more likely to lack access to timely prenatal care, and their children are consequently born too early and too small—increasing their risk of learning problems. Many women of color struggle to find healthy food for their children in the many “healthy food deserts” in both urban and remote rural communities. And, there are big holes in the state’s early learning system—including a shortage of high-quality child care that is affordable.

The reality is that outcomes for children are tied to race, income and zip code, and this must be changed for Michigan to move forward. The state budget is a potent tool for addressing the structural barriers to equity for all children in the state, but its potential won’t be realized until Michigan residents demand it.

— Pat Sorenson

Why we care about healthcare

Added September 27th, 2017 by MLPP | Email This Entry Email This Entry

Yesterday, U.S. Senate Republicans announced that they did not have the votes for the Graham-Cassidy healthcare bill and were abandoning this latest effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA). This now makes the elimination of the ACA highly unlikely and is another win in the ongoing battle to protect healthcare. But that’s just it—it’s an ongoing battle, and while this is a big victory for now, there are surely more attacks to come (which is why we at the League eat “Keep Fighting” bagels).

The Affordable Care Act has become such a political football, but our support of the ACA both as an organization and as individuals lies with this: we believe that healthcare is a right and should be available to all people, regardless of their income, occupation, race and ethnicity, gender, age, pre-existing condition or anything else. We at the League know that we are lucky to have employer-provided health benefits, and that for many of us, having reliable healthcare has changed or even saved our lives. And we know that everyone deserves that same chance.

Here are a just a few staff perspectives on the importance and value of health insurance. Understanding our privilege to have healthcare helps fuel our work to support other people’s struggles to get and keep it through the Affordable Care Act.

Rachel Richards

Rachel Richards

Rachel Richards: My Backup Plan

“I always have a backup plan. I know it drives my husband crazy; I can see him roll his eyes every time I plan through a conversation, a vacation and every ‘If, then’ scenario I can think of. Now, I’ve always been a planner, but the backup planner in me really came into existence with the birth of my son. My plan for a calm, medication-free delivery got quickly thrown out the window as I experienced a failed induction and emergency cesarean section. Post-delivery complications led to a five-day hospital stay for me. My son, who was diagnosed with a respiratory infection through a chest X-ray at one day old and GERD through a barium X-ray at four days old, was released a week after his arrival.

“I had not planned for any of this. But thankfully, I already had a backup plan in place: health insurance. When I received my insurance claim in the mail a few weeks later, I was shocked to find out that our entire ordeal, for which I would only pay about $2,500 total, cost about $60,000. Since then, the benefits of healthcare coverage—and the benefits of the Affordable Care Act—haven’t stopped. Basic preventative medicine, like well-child checkups, annual physicals and immunizations, has been completely covered. Having a child—even one without many complications—could have bankrupted us. Instead, thanks to the healthcare coverage that will always back me up, we are able to provide our son with his basic needs, and then some.”

Lorenzo Santavicca

Lorenzo Santavicca

Lorenzo Santavicca: One Less Student Cost

“For me, being a college student and enduring a long-sprint marathon to my degree consists of a heavy load of debt, a full-time job, a part-time internship, class and a floating level of uncertainty. But one area of my life I’m thankful I haven’t had to worry about at this time is my health insurance.

“Thankfully, I am able to claim myself as a dependent on my parents’ health coverage. It has allowed me to go for regularly scheduled appointments, and certainly puts my mind at ease if I were ever to find myself in a dire situation where I would need immediate assistance. Not to mention, allow me to focus my time and financial resources on my educational success. Unfortunately, for some of my peers in college, the same can’t be said about their health coverage. The Affordable Care Act allows young people like me to stay on our parents’ health insurance until age 26 if need be—including 70,000 in Michigan. That is truly a lifesaver for students and young adults as we look for work and prepare for the real world.

“I urge our elected leaders at the national level to take a hard stop at eliminating healthcare for Americans, like my friends, who could not be covered if it weren’t for the health coverage that currently exists and helps them worry about one less need.”

Emily Schwarzkopf

Emily Schwarzkopf

Emily Schwarzkopf: See Appendix

“It was like any typical Sunday in the life of a single 20-something. I binge-watched some Netflix, did a few loads of laundry and had dinner with some friends. Then at around 10 p.m., a sudden sharp pain started in my stomach…and it didn’t go away. I took medicine, hot showers and figured that if I just fell asleep I would feel better by morning. At 4 a.m., realizing that the pain wasn’t getting any better I drove myself to the hospital (trust me when I say, I knew how stupid this was but figured if I got pulled over the cops would just get me to the hospital faster). After a short wait in the waiting room, an IV and a few tests it was confirmed—I had appendicitis. Now, I consider myself a relatively healthy person and would say that under some circumstances, I may have chosen not to have health insurance because honestly I rarely have a need to use it (outside of the preventative services available to me through the Affordable Care Act).

“Appendicitis is not a. something you just ignore or b. choose to have. I spent two nights in the hospital, had surgery, anesthesia and a lot of really good hospital jello. The recovery was relatively quick and the surgery left nothing but three very tiny scars. I awaited the insurance bill and spent a lot of time googling ‘average cost of appendectomy.’ My bill finally arrived. Total cost $21,000—for something I didn’t even want! Luckily, my insurance took care of most of the costs but I still faced a pretty hefty balance.

“Insurance is a lifeline. It is there for the unexpected…in my case, emergency surgery. Without it, I almost assuredly would have faced great financial hardships. As I think about Congress’s continued (and thus far, failed) attempts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, I can’t help but worry about the millions of people that could lose their healthcare, their lifeline and safety net. And that’s why we have to keep fighting.”

Karen Holcomb-Merrill

Karen Holcomb-Merrill

Karen Holcomb-Merrill: A Parent’s Job (or Worry) Is Never Done

When your kids are babies and toddlers and elementary school kids you can’t imagine that you could ever worry about them or be more protective than you are at that time. But I’ve got news for you young parents. Your kids grow up and you still worry about them and want to protect them, even into their 20s (and beyond). And healthcare is one of the things you worry about most.

Two of my sons—and let’s be honest, guys aren’t the best about seeing doctors—have asthma. That means lung function tests, regular doctor visits and inhalers (and extra inhalers because, you know, boys). We were very fortunate to have good health insurance to cover all of this. When our middle son got a job after college, it was expensive for him to pay his part of his employer-sponsored health insurance, but because of the Affordable Care Act we were able to keep him on our insurance plan until he was 26. It was much more affordable for us than it would have been for him to have his own plan. And this mom took comfort in knowing that he was covered (and hopefully going to the doctor).

Oh, and about the other son with asthma? He’s in grad school and still on our health insurance. We are grateful that he can safely run when he needs to take a break from his PhD program.

Alex Rossman

Alex Rossman

Alex Rossman: Making a Case for Mental Health

As you may have guessed from my days of raising hell as a kid, I’ve got some issues (cue Kid Cudi). I also use comedy and rap references to cope. But in all seriousness, taking care of your mental health is just as important as taking care of yourself physically. It has an unfortunate stigma, but that stigma is chipped away a little every time someone talks openly about mental health and self-care.

“From my wild childhood on in to my somewhat tamer adulthood, I have relied on counseling and therapy to work through my personal challenges. I have been lucky enough to have employer-provided healthcare my whole adult life, including coverage for mental health services. For a lot of people, myself included, it’s hard enough to get yourself through the door. If you throw a hefty price tag on top of that—and believe me, without insurance, it’s not cheap—most people will not be able to properly take care of themselves.

One of the many great things about the Affordable Care Act is mental health parity that provides equal healthcare coverage for mental health as physical health. From anxiety and depression to substance use disorders—especially with Michigan’s opioid crisis—people in Michigan and around the country are struggling with mental health issues. Mental health is as essential as any other component of our health, and care should be as essential—and easy to get—as checkups or medical treatment for an illness or injury. People face enough challenges to getting mental health support, and the cost shouldn’t be one of them. The ACA took a big step forward in addressing mental health costs and coverage, and that is yet another reason why it should be protected.”


This is just a handful of stories on what healthcare has meant for us. But it means even more to the millions of people who have spent the last nine months worrying they’re going to lose it. The Affordable Care Act has had a huge and positive impact on our state and our people, and Congress should be working to uphold and improve it, not eliminate it. With yesterday’s news that Graham-Cassidy has failed, more elected officials seem to be understanding that, and we urge you to keep sharing your own stories of what the ACA has meant for you.


Life at the League: An interview with Phyllis Killips on her four decades of service

Added September 22nd, 2017 by MLPP | Email This Entry Email This Entry
Phyllis Killips

Phyllis Killips

In September of 1977, a young high school graduate cranked out 78 words per minute in a typing test. Little did she know, a 40-year career had just been born.

Phyllis Killips, assistant to the president, just celebrated her 40th anniversary of working with the League, and she sat down to answer a few questions about the changes she’s seen since the 1970s.

Q: How did you come to work at the League (then the Michigan League for Human Services)?

A: I had just graduated high school and a friend and I decided we needed jobs. We went to an employment service to take some tests. When the service reported my typing score to the Michigan League for Human Services, they called and said, “Get her over here!” I had several interviews—one with our very serious director at the time, Maury Beck—and they hired me. I couldn’t believe it. It was my very first job offer and I took it.

Q: What are some of your first memories of the League?

A: My second day of work was our big regional meeting. They gave me a nametag marked “staff” and had me sit at the publications table. I was 17 years old and had no idea what the League was all about. I was terrified! People kept asking me questions and I really didn’t know the answers. A few days later, I was asked to take minutes at a board meeting. For whatever reason, they thought I could do these things. And eventually I did!

Q: The League’s board of directors recently presented you with a cake that featured a typewriter. How has technology changed your job over the years?

A: Well, our typewriters weren’t that ancient. We had memory typewriters when I started, so you’d program the typewriter with up to 50 different settings. It was great to be able to save the information, but since you had no visual, you had no idea whether or not you had made a mistake, and you had to keep lists of all the programs. Computers came to the office in ’81 or ’82, and that changed everything. It made our jobs so much easier because we could actually see what we were typing.

Our donor and member database is something I really love. I was nervous about learning it at first, but it has made my work so much more efficient. That’s one thing…I tend to want to stick to what I know, but that taught me that sometimes it’s better to try something new.

League President Gilda Jacobs and Board Chair Charley Ballard present Phyllis Killips with a cake comemorate her 40th anniversary

League President Gilda Jacobs and Board Chair Charley Ballard present Phyllis Killips with a cake to commemorate her 40th anniversary

Q: You’ve invested 40 years here. What made you decide that the League was more than just a temporary job?

A: Oh, the people. Even though a lot of people have come and gone in the time I’ve been here, they’ve all been really wonderful. Everyone is helpful and it’s been a great place. It’s like family*. And the fact that everyone here is working to help families and children in Michigan, well, that’s just something so special.

*In Phyllis’s case, it’s not just “like” family. Mary Logan, who also works in the office, is Phyllis’s sister-in-law. Phyllis’s brother was looking for a date back in 1979, so Phyllis offered to set him up with the “new girl” at work. He needed to see a picture before he’d commit, so Phyllis awkwardly asked Mary to give her one of her senior pictures. A double date was set, and the rest is family history.

Q: What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen in your time here?

A: Well, we’ve changed our name and moved to four different offices! When I first started, we were on Mill Street, where Impression 5 is now. Then we moved downtown to Washington, then the Penn Building. I love our office today in Old Town. It’s great to be near the river trail and be able to take walks.

Q: What fun memories do you have of your time here?

A: Oh, boy! There are too many to say. And some I probably shouldn’t say! I vividly remember a fundraiser we did—it was called the “Corned Beef Fundraiser.” I have no idea why that was the theme, but it was a big deal—an event we did one year in the 80s with the help of the UAW. Lynn Jondahl, who has been on the board since I’ve been here, was the emcee. He’s a really funny guy and had us all laughing so hard. Everyone really enjoyed the night so much, and afterward we all went to the Boom Boom Room in Lansing…a crazy place! So that’s maybe a good place to stop that story!

Obviously the 100th Anniversary Gala was a special event. Lots of former employees came back for that in 2012 and we put a lot of work into making it a good celebration.

And I think the most heartwarming memory is when Sharon Parks, the previous director, retired. It was really sweet. Mary, Tillie, Jackie and I all put on hats and sang a song that Mary wrote. It was a great send-off to Sharon, and a great way to welcome Gilda to the office.

I’m just glad to be here. I had an opportunity to leave once, and I’d probably be retired by now if I’d taken it. But being here, working with such supportive people, it’s good. I’m glad I stayed.

Phyllis Killips

Some good news about poverty, but Michigan still has a long way to go

Added September 21st, 2017 by Peter Ruark | Email This Entry Email This Entry
Peter Ruark

Poverty bar chartOn Sept. 14, the U.S. Census Bureau released its annual state poverty statistics. We learned that Michigan’s total poverty rate (15%) and child poverty rate (20.2%) are at their lowest in eight years, and that the poverty rate for African-Americans and Native Americans fell significantly since last year.

A poverty rate that is almost back to where it was just before the Great Recession is something to celebrate. It suggests there are fewer people experiencing serious hardship in our state. But, as so often is the case, there are a few caveats to the good news.

Pov pull quoteFirst, the poverty rate simply shows the percentage of the population that is below the federal poverty threshold. This measure was designed in the 1960s based on food costs, and many experts—including the person who created the poverty threshold measure—believe it is outdated as a tool for determining levels of need. While the poverty threshold for a single parent household with two children is $24,339, for example, the League in its Making Ends Meet report calculates that after taking expenses such as rent and full-time child care into account, the household would need $47,321 to meet its needs without government or private assistance—nearly twice as much as the poverty threshold. We must never assume that just because a family is not officially considered poor, it is not experiencing financial difficulty.

Poverty full time year roundSecond, it is possible for a person to work full time and be in poverty. A full-time, year-round minimum wage job will not bring a three-person family above the poverty line. The idea that “the best way to leave poverty is through work” is correct, but only if the job pays an adequate wage.

Third, Michigan does not do a good job at helping its residents leave poverty. Temporary cash assistance (popularly called “welfare”) is only available to households with income below $9,768 per year—approximately half the poverty threshold and considered to be “extreme poverty.” Michigan’s Legislature has not set the minimum wage at a level that will enable workers to leave poverty through work. And, Michigan has cut adult education funding and programs that help low-skilled workers attain the skills and credentials they need to be successful in the job market.

The Census data also shows that Flint has the worst poverty rate in the nation for a city its size, and Detroit, while its rate declined, is still ranked high as well. Michigan needs to figure out how to bring jobs back to the state or grow new jobs, but also invest more in adult education and making college tuition cheaper to make sure that the people who are suffering the most are prepared for those new jobs.

Policymakers in Michigan cannot just sit on their laurels because the poverty rate is improving. Rather, they need to prioritize state funding to help make work pay and to help residents get the skills they need to leave poverty permanently and move toward economic security.

— Peter Ruark

Avocado toast and youth advisory councils: How young people are getting involved in advocacy

Added September 15th, 2017 by MLPP | Email This Entry Email This Entry
Casey Paskus

Casey Paskus

My name is Casey and I am one of the newest interns at the Michigan League for Public Policy. I am so excited to begin working with this amazing group and experience working with a policy institute dedicated to helping the people of Michigan.

I am a senior at Michigan State University (Go Green!) studying international relations and Muslim studies. In the limited free time I have between late nights writing research papers and my internships with the League and the Michigan House of Representatives, I help run social media for an on-campus club for student activists. Learning more about how citizens interact with their governments in my classes inspired me to become more engaged in the surrounding Lansing community and the state, and to make sure other young people are aware of ways to become engaged!

The Michigan Legislature has a big impact on all of our lives. It may not seem as exciting as the weekly crises that arise in the U.S. House and Senate (not to mention the White House!), but the State Legislature has a lot of say in our statewide education system, our ability to receive medical treatment and even in the treatment of the many refugees and immigrants we welcome into our state. Decisions are being made every day that impact all of us, so it is important for young people to be involved in the process.

Young people may not have the ability to vote until the age of 18, but there are many other ways they help advocate for their communities, from joining local advocacy groups or youth advisory councils to organizing protests, petition drives and social media campaigns to calling or writing policymakers.


Casey Protest Pic 488x282


Throughout Michigan’s history, coalitions of families, young people and adults have launched many successful advocacy campaigns across the state. For example, in 1976 Michiganians collected signatures for the well-known Bottle Bill, which placed a deposit on bottles and cans to encourage returns and recycling. The bill passed in 1978, and Michigan made history as one of the first states with container deposits. And it was local families and community members that made the Emmet County Dark Sky Park a reality in 2011 with their passion for astronomy and the beauty of the night sky. Because of low levels of light pollution in this area, nighttime visitors can see billions of stars and even the arms of the Milky Way!

Young people can also find inspiration in 9-year-old Amariyanna Copeny, also known as “Little Miss Flint,” whose letter to former President Barack Obama about what her community experienced due to lead poisoning spurred his visit to the area and brought national attention to the ongoing water crisis. No matter your age, if you or a young person you know has an issue to discuss with state or national policymakers, make sure to check out these advocacy tips from the League!

If advocacy seems overwhelming, there are many organizations around Michigan that facilitate exchanges between young people and their elected officials. Michigan’s Children has created many programs that connect policymakers with the young people they serve, including their KidSpeak and Youth in Public Policy events.

The Youth Advisory Committee at the Council of Michigan Foundations is another great way for young people to get involved in state policy. This committee is made up of Michigan residents ages 12-21 and is responsible for allocating grant money to nonprofit youth programs around the state.

If you don’t have much free time to spare between classes and after-school activities to commit to a youth committee or similar organization, you can also write a quick email to your elected officials about an issue you are passionate about!

It may seem that young people can’t do much within their communities because they cannot vote—however, nothing is further from the truth. There are many ways for young people around the state to get involved, from writing letters to joining advocacy groups. South African anti-apartheid activist Archbishop Desmond Tutu put it best when he said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Stay educated, stay alert and stay active!

— Casey Paskus

Discovering my abilities from preschool to “Spartan”

Added September 14th, 2017 by MLPP | Email This Entry Email This Entry
Lorenzo Santavicca

Lorenzo Santavicca

Transitions are a natural part of life, no doubt. While the transition from diapers to underwear was still seemingly too big for me to fathom, my parents had another one in store: enrolling in and going to preschool.

In short, I was adamantly against this new experience.

Granted, it may seem odd to be able to recall the emotional feeling at this stage of my life; however, as a young child I felt nothing more at that time than uncertainty of the world outside the home. I was first described by my preschool teacher, Mrs. Robin Kowalski, as shy, quiet and undetermined to achieve anything except for getting through the school day.

It was finally halfway through the year that I spoke for the first time in class. Needless to say, my teacher had tears in her eyes when I decided to show my true colors. My success in self-confidence was a celebratory affair for my family and faculty alike.

Fast-forward to 2017. I am now a senior at James Madison College of Michigan State University, closing in on graduation with a bachelor’s degree in International Relations. As I near the end of my undergraduate college career as a two-year Student Body President and an intern for the Michigan League for Public Policy, I can’t help but reflect on the dramatic difference my educational pathway has made in helping me evolve these past 21 years.

Surely, my pathway to success wouldn’t have been the same without my early childhood education experience. Comprehensively, early education programs improve cognitive development, emotional development, self-regulation and academic achievement. Longer-term benefits also reflect that of the community, such as reduction in teen birth rates and crime rates. So, how can today’s Michigan toddlers expect the same success in childhood development that I can directly attribute coming from my earliest experience in preschool?

The Great Start Readiness Program, or the state-funded preschool program for 4-year-old children with factors which may place them at risk of educational failure, is just one way for the state to advance its goal to be a “Top 10 State within 10 Years” under the Every Student Succeeds Act. While the initiative is designed for 4-year-olds, the curriculum may be modified and adjusted for 3-year-olds. The opportunity to attend preschool will only improve the success of a young learner in today’s changing society.

children-raising-handsBut what is Michigan’s report card currently showing in preschool enrollment? In 2015, only 47.4% of our state’s 3- and 4-year-olds were found to be enrolled in preschool, up slightly by 1.2% comparatively to rates measured by the League in 2009. Rural communities are falling behind in early childhood education enrollment compared to urban communities. Families of marginalized communities face additional burdens when it comes to early childhood education enrollment. Specifically, children of Latino or Hispanic background are underrepresented in early childhood education with 53% of children reported not to be attending preschool.

For our state to continue on a path of success in education, parents should be able to rely on our education systems to lead our youth into a path of childhood development before reaching for the pencil in kindergarten.

Now interning for the League, I can only hope to be a change-agent for our youth across the state of Michigan by connecting and sharing my story with legislators, meeting with our partners, developing policy work to prove the necessity of early education programs, and promoting the success of our state’s economy specifically through early childhood education. In the end, I hope to be an advocate of closing the gaps across communities in early childhood education enrollment so every kid is able to benefit from that experience.

Personally, I know that I would never have been able to feel confident to raise my hand and ask for my pencil to be sharpened if it wasn’t for my own preschool experience. I can only assume that there are more students in our state that could truly benefit from the experiences of early childhood education.

— Lorenzo Santavicca

Unemployment rate masks the real story of lost workers

Added September 7th, 2017 by Peter Ruark | Email This Entry Email This Entry
Peter Ruark

In July, Michigan’s unemployment rate dipped to 3.7%, the state’s lowest unemployment rate since 2000. Given the economic hardship our state endured for more than 10 years, let’s acknowledge and celebrate that.

Now for the bad news: while the unemployment rate tells us that a higher percent of people who are looking for work are finding it, the labor force participation rate tells us that a lower percent of the population are working or looking for work.

More bad news: Michigan’s 2016 workforce was still 326,000 workers short of what it was in 2000. The state has not gotten back even half of the nearly half-million workers that Michigan lost between 2000 and 2012.

As this year’s Labor Day Report shows, Michigan’s workforce is graying: the share of the labor force that is age 55 or older has nearly doubled, from 11.6% of the total workforce in 2000 to 22.2% in 2016. Yet retirements don’t explain the loss of workers, because a higher percentage of Michigan residents in that age group are working than in 2000.

LDR Labor force 55+

On the contrary, it is the population age 16-24 that is less likely to work than before. The labor force participation rate of 16-24-year-olds was at 72% in 2000 (consistent with the previous two decades), dipped alarmingly to 55% by 2011 and 2012, and had risen to only 63.4% by 2016. The nonparticipation of younger Michigan residents in the workforce is a major factor in both the state’s lower labor participation rate and in the inability to replace the workers lost since 2000.

LDR Labor force by age group 450x407Much of this reflects national trends. Teenagers and young adults are not entering the labor force in the proportions that they used to, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics cites as possible reasons stagnant wages and competition for low-wage jobs by older unskilled workers due to the loss of higher paying jobs. The lower participation rate is true for both the population that is in school (secondary or postsecondary) and the population that is not in school.

As a state, we must address this situation. Immigration is one way for some of the lost workers to be replaced, and Governor Snyder has made it clear that Michigan is a welcoming state for immigrants. Immigrants arriving with higher skills can fill some job vacancies immediately, while those with lower skills often raise their children to become educated and skilled at a higher level than they themselves are.

For the young people already in our state who come from households with low incomes, Michigan should seek out ways to provide more access to training that leads to career-path employment—not just four-year college degrees, but “middle skills credentials” such as licenses, certificates and associate degrees. Michigan should also seek out ways to help participants in such training succeed by addressing barriers such as child care, transportation and the need for basic skills remediation.
Michigan may be rebounding, but it is obvious we still have a ways to go.

— Peter Ruark

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