Governor Whitmer is focused on families, not breaking the law

Governor Whitmer is not breaking the law by pledging to help families navigate Michigan’s third grade reading law, which will fail as many as 5,000 third graders based on one high-stakes standardized test, the M-STEP, they take this spring. 

In his recent Detroit News op-ed, “Opinion: Whitmer’s rebellion hurts our kids,” Sen. Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) essentially accuses Governor Whitmer of wild, wild West-style lawlessness because of an initiative she announced in her 2020 State of the State speech — public-private partnerships with philanthropic organizations to support families that will be most impacted by the third grade reading retention mandate signed by the previous administration. 

While there are some exemptions built into the retention mandate of 2016, the process for getting one for a child will be complicated for families. The concern is that parents and guardians will need help to understand it because they may not be aware that they have the lawful right to weigh in — and have their child exempted from the law.  

After a retention letter is mailed to a child’s last known address, parents or guardians only have a 30-day window in the summer to meet with school officials to discuss whether retention is in their child’s best interest. Further complicating matters, Michigan’s third grade reading law is predicted to disproportionately affect urban school districts with lower income and minority children, meaning that parents — some working more than one job to make ends meet — may not even know that their child could be made to repeat third grade without their input.   

A prudent and proactive approach, such as what Gov. Whitmer is suggesting, that informs parents about their rights is essential. 

It is ironic and quite frankly, hypocritical, that the Senate Majority Leader — of the party that despises “onerous state mandates” and that reveres personal freedom and local control — would be in favor of a mandate that can strip parents and schools of the freedom to advocate for what is in the best interest of children.  

Sen. Shirkey only needs to look to Florida, which allocates significantly more funding for literacy coaches and other reading supports than Michigan, to see that their 2002 third grade reading law has shown that short-term gains for retained students disappear over time. Moreover, experts who have studied retention practices in general agree that at best, they’re neutral, and at worst, they’re academically and psychologically harmful.  

The governor is not “circumventing” the law, “disregarding” the law, “ignoring” the law, or “inciting rebellion.” She is simply trying to help parents know what their options are when it comes to exemptions to retention and the latitude for judgment that they and educators have — and that the law provides.  

Contrary to the picture that Sen. Shirkey paints in his op-ed, the governor is supportive of measures in the law that would truly help kids read, such as progress monitoring of students on their reading abilities, using early literacy coaches and reading intervention programs, providing K-3 teachers with professional development opportunities on reading, and notifying parents of early literacy delays and providing them with “Read at Home” plans. 

In fact, I introduced Senate Bill 633 in early November to amend the law and keep only these beneficial parts while eliminating mandatory grade retention based on a student’s standardized test score. My bill would also extend these literacy supports to struggling readers in their fourth-grade year. 

Let me be clear: No two students are alike. Retaining kids based solely on a test score isn’t innovation — it’s regression. We must do away with the test-and-punish piece of Michigan’s reading law, invest in early childhood education and literacy coaches, and give families and education professionals the ability to tailor a path that is right for each student. 

Here’s an idea, Sen. Shirkey: Let’s trust our teachers and schools to determine who to retain and when, rather than forcing a test-based grade promotion law on them. 

Sen. Dayna Polehanki, D-Livonia, is a former English teacher and current Democratic vice chair of the Senate Education Committee. 

More news:

Senator Polehanki on DeVos rejection of test waiver request Senator Polehanki: ‘Students Need Instruction, Not More Tests’ State Senator Dayna Polehanki| Legislative Update Newsletter

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