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Lansing — Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Schuette and Democrat Gretchen Whitmer’s plans to fix the state’s struggling education system begin with efforts to reach kids when they’re young.

While they agree on the need to boost troubling reading comprehension rates, their plans are less clear on funding and at odds over a new third-grade reading law that could prevent students across the state from advancing to fourth grade if they lack basic reading skills.

Schuette has made third-grade reading improvements the centerpiece of his education platform, vowing to put a reading coach into every elementary school and create a cabinet-level literacy director position.

“We’re going to have a culture of reading when Bill Schuette is governor,” he said.

Whitmer also wants to put more literacy coaches in Michigan schools, proposing to triple current numbers. And she wants to reach kids even earlier by phasing in full-day universal preschool and increasing subsidized child care eligibility and reimbursement rates for lower-income parents.

“Obviously when our literacy rates put us in the bottom 10 of this country, we all pay the price for that,” Whitmer said this week on WDET. “So I really think it’s important to put a real priority on public education in Michigan again — from cradle to career.”

Education experts agree that early literacy skills are critical to later educational performance. The state is already attempting to boost rates under the  controversial third-grade reading retention law set to take effect in 2020. 

Schuette supports the law, which could prove a ticking time bomb for the state’s next governor. Despite more than $76 million spent on the effort over the past three years, Michigan students have made slight gains in reading test scores.

“Kids need to be able to read when they leave the third grade, and if they don’t, we’re just injuring them, we’re failing them,” Schuette said. "We need to make sure that when a child leaves third grade, they’re proficient in reading. If they’re not, we need to make sure we help them get there.”

Schuette has also proposed scholarships for low-income families to enroll their kids in summer reading camps and pledged to help schools create dedicated reading instruction centers.

Whitmer opposes automatic retention and argues that increasing spending on early education services like universal preschool will “do more to bolster lifetime literacy outcomes than any punitive measure, like retaining students in third grade.”

Endorsed by the Michigan Education Association and other public education groups, Whitmer also wants to ensure a reliable state funding source for Early On, which provides early intervention services for infants and toddlers with developmental delays or disabilities.

"Forcing schools to hold struggling students back from fourth grade isn't how we take Michigan's literacy rates from the back of the pack to the front," Whitmer said. "I have a real plan" that also includes "empowering teachers and paying them well, and converting to a weighted foundation allowance that puts resources where they need to be."

Coaching teachers

Michigan is already investing in literacy coaches, who work with teachers to improve practices, but experts say current numbers pale in comparison to need.

Research shows that literacy coaches who follow best practices and are not given other roles by school administrators can effectively help improve teacher practices that lead to student growth, said Nell Duke, a literacy expert with the University of Michigan School of Education.

The state doesn't have a firm count for the number of literacy coaches currently working in Michigan schools, but "we are behind many other states,” Duke said.

Literacy coaches are considered a key part of the state’s third-grade reading retention law. By improving teacher techniques,officials hope the fewer children will need direct intervention and specialized services outside the classroom.

The state provided more than $6 million in grants during the 2017-18 school year that allowed intermediate school districts to hire 82 literacy coaches, according to the Michigan Department of Education. This year the state will provide $7 million to cover costs for 93 coaches.

Many local school districts have also hired coaches that are shared between schools or put in the highest-need buildings, “but it’s not in every school,” said Randy Liepa, superintendent of Wayne RESA (Regional Education Service Agency). “It not even close to that.”

Significant cost

State grant funding, which the county intermediate district is required to match, helps Wayne RESA employ 5 literacy coaches to serve roughly 270,000 kids in 10,000 local classrooms, Liepa said. Education officials would like to hire many more.

“It really is a model that school districts believe can make a difference with regard to student achievement,” Liepa said.

Cost is a “big issue” for schools or districts that want to hire literacy coaches but might already be facing budget pressures, Duke said. They typically recruit educators with classroom experience or master’s degrees in reading or literacy, so “they’re not starting at the bottom of the pay scale.”

Schuette has not clearly spelled out how he would pay to put a literacy coach into every school but has generally said he’d “reprioritize state funding away from wasteful or unproductive programs.”

Whitmer, who is also proposing a $100 million college or skilled trades scholarship program and wants to give teachers raises, has offered only broad plans to increase K-12 funding, including the elimination of legislator “pet projects” and a review of tax code “carve outs.” She also wants to stop funding universities through the School Aid Fund.

Michigan spent nearly $80 million on early literacy efforts over the past three years, but $26 million a year is not as much as some other states are spending, Duke said. Florida, which has around twice Michigan’s population, spends around $130 million a year on early literacy, she said. Colorado, which has about half the population, is spending $33 million annually as part of its third-grade reading law.

“Money isn’t always the answer, but coaches do cost money, and that is something that candidates are going to have to think about,” Duke said.

Earlier education

Literacy coaches are “one of the ingredients for a recipe for success,” said Gilda Jacobs, executive director of the Michigan League for Public Policy. But a primary reason for the state’s low reading comprehension rates “goes back to kids that are at risk,” she said, and “kids living in high-poverty communities need way more than just a literacy coach.”

Whitmer “gets that,” said Jacobs said, a former Democratic state senator, praising her plans to push for universal preschool access and increased access to subsidized health care. While there would be “a price tag” for those plans, she said they could help boost kids’ “academic achievement, as well as their opportunity to thrive economically.”

Term-limited Republican Gov. Rick Snyder has worked to expand preschool access through the Great Start Readiness program. State funding has grown from $108 million in 2012 to $243 million. The spending level allows the state to offer full-day preschool to up to 32,082 students.

It’s not clear how much universal preschool would cost, but Whitmer has proposed a “phase in” approach to avoid a one-time budget impact.

Michigan’s spending on subsidized child care for low- and moderate-income families ranks among the lowest in the nation, as does its eligibility levels, according to the league.

Families who earn up to 130 percent of the federal poverty level — about $27,000 for a family of three — can qualify for child care assistance. State payments range from $1.60 per hour for unlicensed child care providers to $5.50 per hour for toddlers and infants in five-star child care centers.

“We know when kids are in a good child care program, it helps develop their language early on,” Jacobs said. “And it’s a precursor to making sure they’re going to do well when they enter preschool.”

Governor powers

Schuette and Whitmer have fundamental differences on other major education policies. The Midland Republican is a strong supporter of school choice and is not proposing any new charter school reforms. The East Lansing Democrat wants to prohibit new charters with for-profit management companies and create unified accountability standards for all types of schools.  

While Michigan’s governor can influence education policy through the state budget or legislation, his or her power remains somewhat neutered by the State Board of Education, which is vested by the state Constitution with “leadership and general supervision over all public education.”

Board members, nominated by political parties and then elected by statewide voters, appoint the state superintendent, who then runs the Michigan Department of Education and sits in the governor’s cabinet.

The board was designed to keep education policy decisions separate from day-to-day politics, but it’s been increasingly minimized by governors and legislators with their own ideas, according to a 21st Century Education task force appointed by Snyder.

The commission recommended policy makers pursue a constitutional amendment to allow the governor to appoint all or some board members, or abolish the board and let the governor appoint the state superintendent.

Any change would require voter approval, but the latter would recognize that the governor “is in charge of education and the public has clear accountability measures if they are not pleased with the outcomes,” the commission said.

joosting@detroitnews.com

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