The Word from Lansing: Policies Offer Increased Opportunities for Michigan Students

In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson said “poverty must not be a bar to learning,” while “learning must offer an escape from poverty.” All of Michigan’s children, regardless of their family income or the type of school they attend, deserve a quality education. Unfortunately, too many students, especially those who are low-income or minority, find themselves stuck in failing schools, unable to receive the opportunities that will help them succeed.

The Catholic Church teaches that parents must be the primary educators of their children and should have quality educational options from which to choose (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2229). Michigan Catholic Conference (MCC), as the public policy voice of the Church in this state, has repeatedly called for education programs and reforms that support students and provide for greater parental choice.

Several of MCC’s education priorities have already emerged in the 2015–2016 legislative discussion.

On the national level, the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001 must be reauthorized by Congress to continue federal education funding for children in need, regardless of the school they attend. The Act is the most recent version of legislation initially passed in 1965, which has provided funding for students in public and non-public schools. Within the NCLB Act, improvements must be made to the process by which non-public school students and teachers receive equal participation in these federal programs. MCC and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops have called for these improvements and are also advocating for enhanced consultation between public and non-public school districts regarding how federal funds are distributed.

At the state level, Michigan has provided support to low-income college students through the Tuition Grant program since 1966. The Tuition Grant allows eligible students to receive financial aid to attend one of Michigan’s independent colleges or universities, including six Catholic institutions. Governor Rick Snyder proposed $33.5 million for the program in his 2015–2016 state budget recommendations, the same amount it received the previous year.

The Michigan Legislature has also supported the Tuition Incentive program, which incentivizes completion of high school by providing students with tuition assistance for the first two years of college. Students who meet Medicaid eligibility requirements may apply before they graduate from high school or complete their GED, and they will be eligible to receive assistance for tuition at a postsecondary institution. The program received $48.5 million in the 2014–2015 budget, and Governor Snyder has proposed this level of funding to be retained next year.

MCC is pleased to see both the Tuition Grant and Tuition Incentive programs maintained in the governor’s proposed budget and will work to ensure that any increase in funds for public colleges and universities will be equally applied to private and independent institutions.

Lastly, Michigan has provided funding for dual enrollment opportunities so students can take community college or university classes while still in high school in order to obtain college credit. In the past, non-public school students were required to enroll in a class at the local school district before they could take a college class. In 2012, legislation that passed with MCC support removed this unnecessary requirement. Approximately 1,150 non-public school students took advantage of dual enrollment during Fiscal Year 2013 (October 2013–September 2014). As of this past January, over 530 students have already participated for Fiscal Year 2014. For the upcoming budget, the governor has recommended $1 million in dual enrollment funding specifically for non-public students.

Continued advocacy is necessary to serve the state’s children, especially those in low-income families with greater barriers to success, and to improve access to quality educational options. As school choice continues to move forward in Michigan, MCC will work to ensure opportunities are created for all students, regardless of their zip code.