Capital News Service

of the Michigan State University School of Journalism

Schools intervene earlier to reduce dropout rates

By CHRISTINE HOMAN
Capital News Service

LANSING – Students who leave school before finishing a high school diploma often struggle in life, and their numbers are on the rise.

Today one in four Michigan children don’t graduate with their class. Dropouts on average make less than those who complete high school and are more likely to receive government assistance and to be in prison, according to the Alliance for Excellent Education, an advocacy group based Washington.

“Realistically, we can’t succeed economically if one in four students is dropping out of school. It’s not sustainable,” said Doug Pratt, communications director for the Michigan Education Association (MEA). “We’ve got to make sure students are graduating from high school and moving on to some type of post secondary education.”

The MEA is the state’s largest union of teachers and other education personnel.

Through the Superintendents Dropout Challenge launched last summer by Superintendent of Public Instruction Mike Flanagan, schools are using research-based methods to identify and intervene with students who are at high risk for quitting.

“The goal is to raise awareness that there are data available to identify risk of and prevent dropout,” said Leisa Gallagher, Dropout Challenge coordinator. “Once schools and communities are aware of the urgency to address this problem, Michigan has a better chance to coordinate and systemically address the needs of struggling students.”

Gallagher said between 11,000 and 16,000 students are in the program in elementary, middle school and high school. Younger students are included in the program because early intervention is stressed.

“Students who drop out of school lack the tools to compete in today’s society and diminish their chances for greater success in the future,” said Gallagher.

Participating schools review student records, identify 10 to 15 students each year who are showing signs of dropout risk and intervene.

Pratt said, “It’s a good approach to track at-risk students and make sure they don’t fall through the cracks by providing resources to ensure they get the support they need. It’s a solid approach with good results, and hopefully it can become a key part of our arsenal in the state.”

Pratt said the program is only one part of solving the drop-out problem and that ensuring schools have adequate resources and getting parents and communities engaged are important as well. Solving the problem requires going outside the four walls of the schools, he said.

Intervention methods include graduation coaches, mentoring programs, and engagement of community partners.

Last fall, 142 districts began working with the program and will report on their efforts this summer.

Ken Willison, principal of Englishville High School, an alternative high school in Sparta, said Flanagan is trying to focus districts on the problem rather than having districts try whatever methods they think of.

Willison said his school had already been using many of the recommended interventions, but refined them based on the challenge and adapted a mentoring program.

He said his biggest challenge was choosing students to participate because his school had so many candidates.

It’s too soon to tell if the program is working, said Willison, but he called it a step in the right direction because it teaches schools methods that have shown success in lowering dropout rates.

Willison said he wants to see the drop out initiative expand in the future.

“I understand why you would want to start off small and grow, but it’s pretty small compared to the size of the problem,” he said.

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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Filed under: Education

Student loan changes buried in health care bill

By CHRISTINE HOMAN
Capital News Service

LANSING – A largely overlooked piece of the massive national healthcare legislation will put a different face on aid for Michigan College Students.

Major changes include eliminating subsidies to private lenders and increasing Pell Grant amounts.

Currently the maximum award is around $5,300 and about 317,600 Michigan students receive Pell grants according to the White House.

“This legislation is primarily geared towards supplying an additional funding source for the Pell Grants as opposed to giving it to private lenders,” said Michael Rotundo, director of financial aid at Northern Michigan University. “It’s rerouting the funding so that it helps our neediest students to have access to higher education.”

Pell Grants help low-income students pay for college.

The change will expands federal direct lending and save $61 billion over 10 years by cutting out fees paid to private lenders, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

The U.S. Department of Education would make federal loans directly to universities and colleges.

Under current law, banks and other lenders are allowed to distribute federally-backed student loans, a practice which the legislation prohibits.

It increases Pell Grant funding by $36 billion over the next 10 years and authorizes annual increases in maximum Pell Grant awards based on inflation.

Rotundo said additional funding is more important for Northern than the direct loan provision.

His university has had a direct loan only program since the mid-1990s because it was more efficient for northern and its students than going through banks, according to Rotundo.

Mike Hansen, president of the Michigan Community College Association, said that it’s too early to tell what the effects of the change would be.

“The proof will be in the pudding, once we move towards direct loans, if this is a better system,” he said.

Gail Madziar, vice president of communications and membership for the Michigan Bankers Association, said that she has heard little reaction from the banking industry in the state on the changes.

“Everyone agrees that more financial aid to students is a good thing and we wouldn’t want to see cuts in financial aid,” Madziar said.

Madziar said that because community and local banks don’t do a lot of work with student lending, there probably won’t be a large number of banks that are significantly impacted.

However, she did expressed concern that the legislation will leave students with fewer places to borrow from.

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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Filed under: Legislation

Online classes gain popularity

By CHANTAL COOK
Capital News Service

LANSING – Both middle and high school students in Michigan can take required courses online.

The Michigan Virtual School has been around for 11 years, providing high schools and some middle school students the option to take online classes.

The goal was to help students with online classes and give them necessary support.

The program is tuition-based. School districts pay when their students take classes as part of a school schedule. When students take classes on their own, then students pay. Tuition ranges between $100 to $275 per course.

Many schools allow students to take classes during a regular school period in a computer lab or media center. If not, then they take courses outside of a regular schedule.

It’s recommended for students to have a computer at home but can still access the school on a public library.

When students log in, they see assignments and instructions from their teacher. Communication between students and teachers can be through e-mail, message boards and instant messenging and even by phone. Students can also interact with each other.

Scott Vashaw, associate director of the Michigan Virtual School, said students decide to take courses online for many reasons.

“We see students who take a course because their school didn’t provide it or they couldn’t take it due to a conflicting schedule,” Vashaw said.

He said courses are also available for students who flunked a class and want to take it again online. In addition, students choose online classes over traditional classrooms to avoid bullying, teachers they don’t like and early classes.

John Helmholdt, director of communications and external affairs for Grand Rapids Public Schools, said that education needs to catch up with today’s technology.

“The world has passed us as a state and country,” said Helmholdt.

He said that not every student learns the same way. Some prefer online classes to sitting in a classroom all day.

Grand Rapids next year will provide online classes to students. The district also uses Michigan Virtual School. Students will decide which core courses to take. They also can select to have a class online, a blend of both online and classroom or just regular classes.

Helmholdt said that classes will be supervised and supported by certified teachers.

“An online school site can provide an at-home opportunity to districts for students who are home schooled, who want privacy, enhance studies and help with revenue,” Helmholdt said.

Don Meyers, superintendent of Vestaburg Community Schools, said small districts with low enrollment need online classes.

“There are certain classes that don’t have the number of students interested to provide teachers,” Meyers said.

Vestaburg High School has between 219 to 245 students.

Meyers said with that small number it can’t offer some classes like French. Online classes are an alternative for students wanting to classes not offered by the school.

The high school uses Global Student Network (GNS), which is based in Ohio and provides online classes from second grade to high school.

The network provides core classes and allows schools to use its teachers, policies and procedures. GNS trains teachers on curriculum and procedures. Prices go for $625 per student, which cover 365 days of unlimited courses, and $225 per course for up to two courses only.

Vashaw said some students don’t like online classes because they have to be responsible.

“You can’t procrastinate with getting your work done,” Vashaw said.

He said although it may be hard for some students, online classes teach them to be more responsible, better organized and better with time management.

Doug Pratt, director of communication at the Michigan Education Association, said the decision for schools to provide online classes shouldn’t be based on financial reasons but what is better for education.

“It has to be the right scenario and be supervised by teachers,” Pratt said.

He said online classes could help teen parents stay in school. Teen pregnancies are a huge problem in communities driving up high school dropout rates

Last year more than a million students in Michigan took an online class in college, and providing online classes for high school students will help them better prepare for college, Vashaw said.

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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Filed under: Education

Benefits for illegal workers stir heated debate

By CHENQI GUO
Capital News Service

LANSING – Some illegal immigrants injured on the job would be eligible for workers’ compensation benefits under controversial legislation pending in the House.

The proposal by Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D- Detroit, would eliminate some immigration violations as barriers to collecting benefits.

“Forty-eight other states understand the importance of the reform primarily because the legislation doesn’t cost the state any money,” Tlaib said, “Not extending workers’ compensation to undocumented workers gives the employers an incentive to circumvent the program originally established to protect the workers.”

But business groups oppose it because they say it would drive up workers’ compensation costs for employers.

Current state law denies benefits to employees who can’t work because they committed a crime. Tlaib’s bill would exclude “working without employment authorization” or using false documents as disqualifying crimes.

Jack Nolish, director of the state’s Workers’ Compensation Agency, said the bill addresses a Michigan Supreme Court case several years ago that disqualifies undocumented workers from certain benefits.

However, Rob Anderson, legislative counsel for the Michigan Farm Bureau which opposes the bill, said, “This would create a situation where these individuals who have committed a crime and other crimes would be able to collect lifetime wage loss benefits even if they are not in the country any more. This would put them in a position above other individuals who have also committed a crime.”

The co-sponsors include Reps. Coleman Young, D-Detroit; Vincent Gregory, D-Southfield; Lesia Liss, D-Warren; Gabe Leland, D-Detroit and Ellen Cogen Lipton, D-Huntington Woods.

On the other side of the issue, Rep. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, called the bill outrageous. “There is no way that we should allow illegal aliens to take the job, and get benefits. Her bill is a horrible slap in the face of legal immigrants who have worked so hard,” said Jones.

Citing Michigan’s high unemployment rate, he said, “We don’t need illegal immigrants coming here stealing jobs from college students who need the jobs.”

Jones said the legislation would encourage illegal immigrants to come to Michigan.

And Rep. Dave Agema, R-Grandville, has introduced his own bill to reinforce the disqualification of workers who illegally use false documents to get jobs if their employers don’t know about it.

“I’m trying to discourage illegal activity and she’s encouraging that,” he said of Tlaib, “Her bill would reward lawbreakers.”

Agema said that illegal immigration costs about $600 million a year for health care, welfare, jails and human services in Michigan.

Mike Batterbee, director of government relations for the Small Business Association of Michigan, said he worries that the bill would have a negative impact on small business.

“We’ve been opposed to it because it would drive up workers’ compensation costs. There are some companies that do hire undocumented workers on purpose. They are flouting the law,” he said.

He said the bill wouldn’t affect businesses that follow federal law by requiring documentation that applicants are eligible to work in the United States.

The bill is pending in the House Labor Committee.

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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Filed under: Legislation

Employers want to check credit history before hiring

By LAURA FOSMIRE
Capital News Service

LANSING – Your credit history – the good, the bad and the ugly – may soon become off-limits to potential employers.

A bill in the House would prohibit employers from looking at credit histories when assessing present and potential employees.

“It wouldn’t just prohibit it in the hiring process,” said the sponsor, Rep. Jon Switalski, D—Warren. “It would also prevent employers from using credit histories when firing or disciplining employees.”

Switalski said the bill is necessary because a person’s credit history often makes finding work more difficult.

“Our economy is struggling and people are losing their jobs and their homes through no fault of their own,” he said. “They have huge amounts of debt, and it hurts their credit score. It’s sort of a catch-22. You can’t get a job without a good credit history, but you can’t improve your credit history without a job.”

But businesses aren’t convinced.

Mike Batterbee, director of government relations for the Small Business Association of Michigan (SBAM), said the proposal would let the government go too far.

“Our opposition to the bill is mainly that employment decisions are between an employer and prospective employee,” he said. “The government shouldn’t get involved. One of the things that credit histories allow the employer to do is to verify what’s on the resume.”

According to Switalski, credit histories don’t accurately reflect a person’s qualification for a job.

“It’s just a snapshot of a person’s history,” he said. “It used to be that you would look at credit histories to see if people had repaid loans, that sort of thing. But now it’s being used to judge a person’s character.”

The bill would allow lawsuits by those who feel they’ve been discriminated against or wronged by an employer.

Michigan isn’t alone. Other states like Wisconsin, Georgia, Oregon and South Carolina are proposing similar versions of Switalski’s bill. There is also a federal version in Congress.

Switalski defended the bill, saying government has a responsibility to promote equality.

“Employers are using this against employees with a poor financial past,” he said. “That’s discrimination, and any kind of discrimination is wrong.”

But SBAM’s Batterbee said that most employers don’t check applicants’ credit history because of the cost.

“Just like you would call somebody’s references, this is another tool in making those decisions,” he said. “If a business has to run a credit check, obviously they feel the expense is worthwhile or they wouldn’t be doing it.”

Michael Fox, president of Ingenuity IEQ, an environmental firm in Midland, said credit history checks are an essential part of his company’s interview process.

“We employ 34 people,” he said. “We’re an employee-owned company, and that means that we’re more like a family than a company. We’re very particular about who we let into our family and you do find out certain things from a credit report.”

Fox said the bill would take away an important step in the hiring process.

“We use a pretty thorough interviewing process,” he said. “When we get into the final stages, we’ve done a very lengthy interview with the candidate and we go through their career history and everything else. One of the final things we do is check references and perform thorough background checks.

“That would include a credit report, so in a nutshell I would be opposed to a bill that says you can’t do it,” he said.

Tom Scott, senior vice president of communications and marketing with the Michigan Retailers Association, said that although his organization hasn’t taken a stand on the bill, employers should be allowed to use a variety of tools to screen applicants.

“Generally speaking, many employee positions have some degree of fiduciary responsibility,” he said. “Employers need as complete a picture of an applicant as possible in order to make an informed hiring decision.”

However, Fox said that an applicant’s poor credit history isn’t always a deal-breaker.

“We try very hard to hire people who are truthful and honest,” Fox said. “People make mistakes along the way and we’re okay with that. It’s more about their attitude.”

The bill is awaiting action in the House Labor Committee.

Co-sponsors include Fred Miller, D—Mount Clemens; Vincent Gregory, D—Southfield; Lesia Liss, D—Warren; and Sarah Roberts, D—St. Clair Shores.

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

Filed under: Legislation

Computers soon will track cold medicine buyers

By JOSH GARVEY
Capital News Service

LANSING- In 2009, Michigan had 659 methamphetamine production busts throughout the state.

Meanwhile, Oregon reported only 10.

Part of the reason for the dramatic difference shown by statistics from the Oregon State Police and Oregon Narcotics Enforcement Association is a 2005 state law that requires a prescription for cold and allergy medications with ingredients used in making meth. The year before the law, the state had 192 busts.

Methamphetamine is a stimulant that can, over time, lead to altered brain functions, extreme weight loss, paranoia, insomnia and a heightened risk of HIV and hepatitis transmission.

Lt. Tony Saucedo, the unit commander of the Michigan State Police’s methamphetamine investigation team, said that control over those allergy medications would reduce meth production in Michigan.

Ephedrine and pseudoephedrine are allergy medications that help open restricted airways. Chemically they’re one oxygen molecule away from meth, according to Saucedo.

“Any time that you can control that, whether it’s through prescription or other means, you’re going to have a better handle on the methamphetamine production,” he said.

Even so, Saucedo acknowledged, “You’re not going to stop people from using methamphetamines.”

Since 2005 Michigan law requires retailers to keep ephedrine and pseudoephedrine products out of customers’ reach and requires buyers to show identification and sign for the purchase. The store must keep sales records for at least six months.

Sen. Patty Birkholz, R- Saugatuck, said that although there have been legislative discussions about tightened control over medications, she’s unsure that following Oregon’s change would fit Michigan’s needs. Birkholz has gone undercover with the Allegan County Meth Task Force for a day.

She said Oregon is the only state that requires a prescription.

“It’s a real challenge, though, in Michigan because we have a lot of people with allergies, ” she said.

Greg Baran, the director of government affairs for the Michigan Pharmacists Association, said health care costs create another concern with the Oregon model.

“Although requiring a prescription for pseudoephedrine would ratchet down access to the drug, I could also see an increase in health care costs,” he said. “Now individuals can go into a pharmacy or a grocery store and purchase the drug, but such a change would require a prescription from their physician before having access, and that entails an office visit or something to that effect.”

Although Birkholz and Baran said they are reluctant to see Michigan replicate what Oregon did, both said that stronger pseudoephedrine and ephedrine laws would help curb meth production.

Recounting her ride along with the Allegan County force she said “We went from pharmacy to pharmacy, and it’s amazing the number of people who will hop from town to town or even store to store in larger areas where there’s more than one place to purchase the drugs.”

That practice of going from pharmacy to pharmacy to get around the restrictions is called smurfing.

“They’ve been able to use the signature logs as a way of tracking use and tracking people who are cooking meth,” Birkholz said. “They’ve found that to be very helpful.

“One of the challenges that they’ve had, especially as we’ve cut back on revenue to our police agencies, is that it takes a fair amount of time and money to have someone drive around to all of these pharmacies and read all of the logs,” she said.

Saucedo said budget constraints make inspecting store logs more difficult, but that’s always been a problem for law enforcement agencies.

“We’re no different than anyone else, and obviously with less manpower there’s not as many things that you may be able to do in terms of checking the logs,” he said. “Even when budget times were good, that was always difficult because there are so many locations to purchase these drugs.”

That’s one reason why Birkholz advocates an electronic database to track who purchases the allergy medicines from what store and in what quantity.

Saucedo said that such a database will be launched soon. The Michigan Methamphetamine Information System will allow the state to electronically receive information from retailers, link smurfing groups that purchase the medication together and simplify paperwork.

“We’re hoping the rollout will be in 30 to 60 days,” he said. “We already have all the computer hardware, we have a server already set up, we have the actual program uploaded to the server and now we’re making some changes to make it more Michigan specific.”

Both Saucedo and Dennis Simpson, the program director of Western Michigan University’s specialty program in drugs and alcohol use, said that any change in the law won’t stop the use of meth in the state.

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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Filed under: State Agencies

Sour year for Michigan maple syrupers

By MEGAN DURISIN
Capital News Service

LANSING – In 2009, Michigan produced the most maple syrup in more than 60 years, but this spring farmers are tapping out sooner than they had hoped.

“No two maple seasons are alike,” said Russell Kidd, a Michigan State University Extension forest educator based in Roscommon. “This year was a poor year because it got warm in the middle of the season.”

Kidd said sap production requires below-freezing temperatures at night and above-freezing temperatures during the day.

“Last year we produced 115,000 gallons of syrup, which was tremendous,” Kidd said, adding that it was the most since 1947. “Normally we average 60,000 to 70,000 gallons. A good year is about 80,000.”

Larry Haigh of Bellevue, president of the Michigan Maple Syrup Association, said the state ranked fifth in the nation last year for production.

The association has about 200 members, many of them family-run businesses.

“We started making maple syrup with my folks in 1958 when I was a freshman in high school,” Haigh said. “We bought our own woods 30 years ago. We’ve been around it all our lives.”

Haigh said Haigh’s Maple Syrup and Supplies made 250 gallons in 2008. So far this spring, his production has been 165 gallons, which is about half of what he can sell.

Michigan has two major maple syrup festivals every year in Sheperd, about 25 miles south of Clare, and Vermontville, 30 miles west of Lansing.

“For both of those communities, it’s an important event,” said Ken Nye, commodity specialist for the Michigan Farm Bureau. “They use it to promote the tourism of the town.”

Eugene Fisher, president of the Vermontville Maple Syrup Corporation Festival, said this is the festival’s 70th year and attracts an average of 35,000 people each year.

“It’s the granddaddy of the maple syrup festivals in Michigan,” Fisher said.

The festival, which runs April 23-25, brings tourists from other states, Fisher said. It will include fireworks, an arts and crafts show, a Little Miss Maple Syrup Princess contest, syruping demonstrations at Maple Manor and lots of food, especially pancakes and maple syrup.

Despite the large amount of syrup last year, a section in the middle of the Lower Peninsula didn’t fare well, and it included Haigh’s farm in Bellevue. Meanwhile, production was the best on the lakeshore and in the Upper Peninsula.

Maple syrup is in high demand, Haigh said, and the price doesn’t often go down. His farm has raised its prices this year.

Haigh said last year’s average price for a gallon was $45 to $58 and he expects the average for 2010 to be about $50 a gallon.

He said a syruper in Mason is charging $60 a gallon.

Paul Bastian of Bastian Maple Hill Farm in Dorr, about 20 miles south of Grand Rapids, has been in the business since the early 1990s. This is the second consecutive bad year for syrupers in Southwest Michigan.

“You just learn to live with it,” Bastian said. “That’s a part of farming.”

Bastian said maple syrup is a weather-dependent crop and relies on how much sugar is in the sap.

“I always hope for 100 gallons, but I never quite make it,” said Bastian.

Bastian estimated that he taps 300 to 400 trees each year.

“I just like working in the woods,” Bastian said.

Haigh expressed similar reasons for continuing the business.

“It’s just in our blood, we’ve done it for so long,” Haigh said. “We use a lot of maple syrup products in our household.”

Kidd said that it typically takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup.

“When you tap a tree, it looks like water, it runs like water. It’s only about 2 percent sweetness,” Kidd said. “It’s like drinking bottled water that’s sweetened with something.

Kidd also said that maple syrup is unique to the United States and Canada. Only about 16 states and provinces produce it, stretching between Minnesota and New England.

“It’s a very North American product,” Kidd said.

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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Filed under: Agriculture

Changing lake levels prompt debate

By CHENQI GUO
Capital News Service

LANSING – Gerogian Bay Association, a Canadian environmental group, is blaming navigational dredging in the St. Clair River decades ago for lower water levels in Lake Michigan and Lake Huron decades later.

Not everyone agrees.

For example, the International Joint Commission says the argument is bogus. The commission assists governments in solving water-related problems across the border between the United States and Canada.

Lynn Duerod, public affairs officer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said, “Navigational dredging doesn’t have an impact on the lakes. It just affects shores that are in the harbors.”

The dredging has occurred at various times since the 1960s. The last major dredging was in 1962 and lowered lakes Michigan and Huron, according to Frank Bevacqua, public information officer at the Commission.

But that wouldn’t affect water levels today, he said. “The lakes are not continuing to drop because of that. Since 2000, the St. Clair River bed appears to be stable.”

St. Clair River affects the Great Lakes because they’re all in one system. Water flows from Lake Superior to lakes Michigan and Huron. Then it flows through the St. Clair River and to Lake Erie.

Meetings about lake levels were held in Muskegon and Toronto in late March.

People in Muskegon were concerned about the shoreline and what might happen during high water. In Toronto the concerns were about low water and wetlands, Bevacqua said.

“In Muskegon, some of the people said they were concerned that there were some work in places in the St. Clair River during the high water cycle that might make the water level higher than they would have been otherwise.

“Other people thought that if you regulate the flows, you could reduce some of the highs and some of the lows to have a nice range of fluctuation,” Bevacqua said.

He said that the major reason for the change in lake levels is climate, such as drier weather over the upper lakes.

Another factor is called glacial isostatic adjustment.

“Portions of the earth’s crust in the basin are still rising and falling. The land in the northern parts of Lake Huron and Lake Superior is rising, and in the southern parts of the Lake Michigan in Chicago the land is actually falling. That has an effect on water levels on the shore,” Bevacqua said.

James Clift, policy director for the Michigan Environmental Council said, “Lake levels impact those people who live on the lake shore when levels are high.”

Sometimes property owners have erosion problems when high water eats away at their land, he said. In some extreme cases, houses become unstable and fall off their foundations.

“Lake levels are Mother Nature. Lake levels have historically gone up and down so we try to educate people about what that pattern looks like,” Clift said.

“Actually the beneficial thing that has happened on the lakeshore is making a healthier ecosystem,” he said.

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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Filed under: Environment

Bill would require insurers to cover autism treatments

By DANIEL OPSOMMER
Capital News Service

LANSING – Families affected by autism could have much greater access to needed care under legislation approved by the House that requires insurers to cover treatments for autism spectrum disorders.

A bill by Rep. Richard Ball, R-Bennington Township, is part of a bipartisan package that would mandate coverage for the treatment of autism.

“Health coverage would be a life-changer for families affected by autism because it will allow so many young people to lead better and more fulfilling lives,” Ball said. “Above all, it’s a humanitarian and quality-of-life issue.”

Autism is a developmental disability that substantially impairs social interaction and communication and causes unusual behaviors, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Many people with autism also have unusual ways of learning, paying attention and reacting to different sensations. The autism spectrum includes Asperger’s disorder and pervasive developmental disorder.

Between 2001 and 2006, the number of children in Michigan public schools diagnosed with autism-related disorders more than doubled, according to the Autism Society of Michigan.

Today about one in 150 children nationally are diagnosed with autism or a closely related disorder, according to the CDC. However, the CDC said the data doesn’t mean that autism is on the rise, because the criteria for diagnosis has changed over time.

“People with autism are unique in the sense that they all have individualized needs,” said Ball, who previously operated an optometry clinic where he had patients with autism who had been assessed inaccurately. “In many cases they require unique care, which most people are reluctant to provide because it costs more.”

If children are diagnosed with autism as early as 18 months of age, effective therapy can raise their IQ levels and improve their language skills and behavior, according to Autism Speaks, an advocacy organization in New York.

Ball said requiring insurers to cover treatment would save the state money in Medicaid expenses and other services such as special education.

“A standard eye exam wasn’t the proper approach to examining these young men and women’s eyes because they either couldn’t read or couldn’t read very well,” Ball said. “They were being improperly diagnosed, which just made things harder on them.”

Ball said he developed a test where he cut colored construction paper into different sizes, and placed them on the floor around his office and asked his patients to find and collect the pieces.

“The test didn’t necessarily depend on whether or not they were able to find all the cutouts,” Ball said. “I was more concerned with observing them to see when they first identified certain cutouts and which they identified first because I could then tell if they were near – or far – sighted.”

The House passed Ball’s bill 83 to 25. Opponents of the bill include the Michigan AFL-CIO, Michigan Association of Health Plans, Michigan Manufacturers Association and Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce.

Andy Johnston, director of environmental affairs for the chamber said his organization believes the best way to reduce costs and providing efficient delivery is to eliminate government intervention in health care.

“It really doesn’t have anything to do with autism. It has to do with health care delivery,” Johnston said.

The bill is currently pending in the Senate Economic Development and Regulatory Reform Committee.

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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Filed under: Legislation

Community colleges push job training initiatives

By MEGAN DURISIN
Capital News Service

LANSING – Community colleges are finally taking advantage of the Michigan New Jobs Training Program to get free job training for their students and keep businesses in state.

For example, Grand Rapids Community College recently formed a partnership with Energetx Composites of Holland, a composite manufacturing company. The partnership is the first since legislation that created the program was signed in December 2008.

“It’s an economic development and workforce development tool,” said Mike Hansen, president of the Michigan Community College Association. “They have to be new jobs, so it helps attract new jobs and keep jobs in Michigan.”

Under such agreements, companies pledge to hire a specified number of employees who require training. Community colleges borrow money or use reserve funds to pay to train students for the company.

Once those students become employed, their income taxes are diverted to the college to reimburse training costs instead of being paid to the state.

“The state gets 100 newly trained workers, the company gets free training and the college gets a new partnership,” Hansen said.

For a business to be eligible, it must commit to create full-time jobs in a new, existing or expanding company. The jobs must pay at least $12.95 per hour and cannot replace existing jobs in the company.

The legislation was modeled after a similar law in Iowa. The difference is that Michigan allows colleges to borrow from their own reserves or take out loans instead of issuing bonds to finance training.

In the Energetx deal, however, the company is fronting the costs of the training, Hansen said. The association said that approach minimizes the college’s financial and makes the program more attractive to the company.

After the students are employed, the college will receive their payroll tax withholdings and reimburses Energetx for the training expenses.

It’s projected that the company will be fully reimbursed within four years.

The partnership allows Grand Rapids Community College to provide a three-year training program at a maximum cost of $547,000 for up to 280 new workers.

Heather Harback, manager of corporate and continuing education at Jackson Community College, said her college is pursuing similar agreements with a variety of potential partners in industries ranging from advanced manufacturing to research and development.

Harback said the partnerships will help keep jobs in Michigan, but also draw employers from other parts of the country.

“Some companies we’re working with are new to the state,” Harback said.

Hansen also said he’s heard of employer interest from other countries.

“We’re in discussions with a college that has a company that may be moving operations from Canada to Michigan, partly due to the incentives,” Hansen said.

Hansen said that six to 10 community colleges are looking at partnerships with companies in a wide range of industries.

“Energetx is a materials composite company,” Hansen said. “There are others in manufacturing, insurance. It runs a pretty full gamut.”

Hansen said the spotlight is on community colleges because they are experiencing record enrollments and can change with the economy.

Harback said that they can anticipate local needs and respond with new programs.

For example, she said Jackson Community College has recently launched courses in renewable energy and sustainability.

Matt Miller, executive director of college advancement at Mid Michigan Community College in Harrison, said his college isn’t currently working on forming any partnerships, but thinks it’s a great program to provide creative economic development.

“We’re finding with the current job market that not a whole lot of employers are looking to add new jobs,” Miller said.

However, he said the college remains open to the program and would take part if approached by an employer.

Ellen Jones, director of public affairs at Lansing Community College, said the college just launched a new Get a Skill, Get a Job program, in which graduates are reimbursed for tuition if they cannot find a job within one year. The program isn’t part of the Michigan New Jobs Training Program but also helps guarantee graduates employment.

It provides six-week, intensive training for several high-demand careers including pharmacy technician associates, customer service specialists and quality inspector associates.

“We work with employers all the time to help them meet workforce needs,” Jones said.

The programs cost $2,150 to $2,500. Jones said students must pay half up front. If they can’t find a job, the college refunds their money.

“A lot of people need work now,” Jones said. “They can’t wait two years.”

Jones said the program was created to fill a gap in the workforce.

“The jobs being created in Michigan now, so many of them require more than a high school education, but less than a four-year degree,” Jones said. “A lot of people may apply that have never taken a college class.”

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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