Ann Arbor Skyline students' idea for license plate to support arts becomes bill in Michigan House
Melanie Maxwell | AnnArbor.com
Rep. Douglas Geiss, a Democrat from Taylor, introduced a bill on March 12 in the Michigan House of Representatives that would create a fundraising license plate to support the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs.
The legislation was the work of Skyline High School's now-juniors Hannah Clague and Stina Perkins, as well as former Skyline student and current Rudolf Steiner junior Sophie Kendall. While the three girls did not write the actual bill that was proposed, it was inspired by a paper they crafted last year as part of Skyline's Communication, Media and Public Policy magnet.
Lead teacher Pat Jenkins said during the students' first class as sophomores in the magnet, Introduction to Public Policy, the kids are required to brainstorm a policy issue they would like to know more about. Then they complete a policy analysis and research solutions and resolutions that are employed in other places, she said.
For the three girls, arts fundraising was a no brainer.
They have watched as programs in the arts — dance, choir, theater, band and orchestra — continuously were placed on the chopping block not only in districts across Michigan, but in their own district, as schools face budget cuts, declining enrollment and decreased funding from the state.
"I have played classical guitar since I was 4 and it's something that has lead me to excel throughout my school career and has been really influential in what I achieve as a student today," said Perkins of her passion for arts education. "There's tons of research about how participating in (the arts) spurs cognitive develop from a young age."
Aside from playing guitar, Perkins also is a writer. Clague is an aspiring singer and dancer, and Kendall draws and paints.
Clague's father, Mark, is a music professor at the University of Michigan and it was his connection to a former student, Timothy Michling, who works in Geiss' office, that led to the Ann Arbor students presenting their proposal for the license plate to the legislator.
Michling is the primary oboist for the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra and Geiss is a huge supporter of the arts and music education as his wife plays the violin, said Michling. He said Mark Clague mentioned the girls' proposal to him and he mentioned it to Geiss.
"From Detroit to the Upper Peninsula, Michigan is home to some of the world's greatest institutions of music, art, history and culture," Geiss said. "While difficult economic circumstances have required that equally difficult funding decisions be made at the state level, it is truly unfortunate that Michigan — historically known for its creative edge — has become so disinvested in its artistic and cultural heritage."
He said the license plate would give people a visible symbol for their support of the arts, while guaranteeing access to arts and cultural programming to communities throughout Michigan.
House Bill 4407 has bipartisan support and was co-sponsored by four Democrats, including Rep. Jeff Irwin from Ann Arbor, and three Republicans.
Perkins said the girls based their proposal on a similar bill in the state of California, which they discovered in their research also has experienced significant cuts to K-12 arts programs. Michling added there also are arts license plates in Nevada, Texas, Tennessee, Indiana and North and South Carolina.
Perkins said the California license plate fundraiser was wildly successful and the money from the plates generated nearly 60 percent of the state's arts education budget.
If House Bill 4407 passes, the idea would be to launch a "huge crusade" to save arts education in Michigan and to advertise the effort on a broad scale, Perkins said. She added the California bill was promoted and backed by numerous celebrities, including the cast of "Glee."
The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee will take up the bill, the Secretary of State's Office would issue the license plates and the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs would funnel the money through grants to local school districts.
According to the State Department's website, it currently offers fundraising license plates for Michigan's 15 public universities, as well as nine special causes, including: the Boy Scouts of America, Children's Trust Fund, lighthouse preservation, veterans memorial, water quality and disaster relief through the American Red Cross and The Salvation Army. Purchasing a special fundraising plate costs an extra $10.
Perkins said she never imagined her and her classmates' proposal would go so far.
"There are lots of causes competing out there, but I think there is interest in this one," she said, adding the process has taught her a lot about the State Legislature, public policy and the power of a small grassroots group of people.
"It was definitely encouraging. We learned in our government class that the most influential thing to a person sitting in public office is the heartfelt letters from their communities. And we got to see firsthand how that works."
"I am thrilled," Jenkins said of Clague, Kendall and Perkins' paper becoming the inspiration for this bill. "High school students today, I don't think the public is aware of how awesome they are. If you give them the tools and have high expectations, they really do soar."
She said in her Skyline magnet program, she teaches, but she also does a great deal of facilitating.
"It's real world here and if you want to change the world, you can. And that's so true in terms of the impact these girls are having."
Clague and Perkins encouraged community members to get involved in helping this bill pass and to write their legislators and the governor to share their opinions on the bill.