Education advocates seek literacy fund to support early readers in Michigan

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Novi — A coalition of K-12 education advocates wants state lawmakers to create for a literacy fund that would provide additional support to students in grades K-3 as Michigan educators prepare to make retention decisions in the spring under the state's third-grade retention law.

Officials with Launch Michigan, a partnership of business, education, labor, philanthropy, civic leaders, and parents, gathered Wednesday in Oakland County to announce their agenda for 2020 to build a better K-12 system in the state.

Michigan's controversial third-grade reading law allows educators to retain struggling third-graders beginning this school year.

Doug Rothwell, co-chair of Launch Michigan and president and CEO of Business Leaders for Michigan, said the fund will be accompanied by district-driven strategic planning requirements to ensure dollars are being sent to areas of greatest need and are tied to evidence-based research and practice. 

“We’re introducing a new ‘Equity in Literacy’ fund this year, which will provide additional support to early readers in grades K–3,” Rothwell said. “The fund will help tackle Michigan’s literacy challenges while providing additional support to students living in poverty, as well as those who are geographically isolated.”

Coalition officials said the fund is a legislative proposal, with hopes for it to be built into next year’s budget. Funding would be weighted based on the needs of the students especially those in poverty or geographic isolation.

The group also announced it would focus on three priorities in its future work: preparing high school graduates, focusing on rapid improvement to the state's K-12 system and closing equity gaps.

“These priorities are going to give us a solid framework for change,” said Launch Michigan co-chair Paula Herbart, who is also president of the Michigan Education Association. “From here, we can develop a strong, phased-in approach that will deliver results for all our state’s learners over time.”

In its plan, released on Wednesday, the group said last school year, more than 2,500 long-term substitute teachers taught in Michigan classrooms and educator preparation

colleges experienced a 70 percent drop in enrollment over the past 10 years.

"Michigan must immediately make needed statutory changes to allow educators to be

employed at the Michigan department of education without sacrificing their school retirement funds or comparable benefits," the group said in its recommendations of changes in 2020.

It is also asking the state education department to "reconcile" its two statewide accountability plans into one reporting system that complies with federal law, helps identify the most challenged schools for needed interventions and is "clear and concise to educators, parents and community members."

Tonya Allen, Launch Michigan co-chair and president and CEO of the Skillman Foundation, said as a state, Michigan has been focused on picking winners and losers in the education system. 

"We must turn our intentions to producing winners and winners, making targeted and equitable investments so all Michigan children can achieve their highest aspirations,”  Allen said.

In March, the group released the results of a statewide educator survey that found nearly a quarter of Michigan educators say their schools are not ready to provide any additional support for students who are held back under Michigan's controversial third-grade reading law.

The survey, which gathered opinions from nearly 17,000 educators across the state, found that number rises to more than 4 in 10 in some urban districts, especially those with high-poverty and low per-pupil spending.

While a majority of teachers say their school libraries and classrooms have enough reading material for students, more than 3 in 10 do not — particularly in the same high-poverty and lower-spending urban districts, according to the survey.

Michigan's controversial third-grade reading law allows educators to retain struggling third-graders beginning this school year.

The law, adopted in 2016, stops third-grade students from moving to the fourth grade — with some exemptions — if they read a grade level behind on the state's English Language Arts assessment, which measures reading, writing, listening and language.

On Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey said he is open to making changes to the reading law after hearing concerns from educators.

"The majority leader has no specific change in mind," Shirkey spokeswoman Amber McCann said. "He has heard from educators with concerns about the law, and he is open to a discussion as to how we could improve existing requirements."