University of Michigan graduate students go on illegal strike with rally

Betsy DeVos, Michigan House target Gov. Whitmer over reading funds

Beth LeBlanc Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's veto of a $155 million initiative to provide reading grants to students through Grand Valley State University is drawing criticism this week from former U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and GOP lawmakers.

The Republican-controlled House unsuccessfully attempted to override the Democratic governor's decision Wednesday. And DeVos, a prominent GOP donor who has remained relatively quiet since the end of former President Donald Trump's administration, labeled the veto "indefensible" and "unconscionable" during a radio interview Tuesday.

The dispute highlights the larger political fight over education vouchers and whether government dollars should flow to private schools and services if students choose to use them.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos visits a third-grade class at Detroit Edison Public School Academy. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's veto of a $155 million initiative to provide reading grants to students through Grand Valley State University is drawing criticism this week from DeVos and GOP lawmakers.

"It would have given families the opportunity to find the best way for their kids to catch up, to learn the things that they've missed, to learn to read, to be strong readers," DeVos said of the Grand Valley plan during an interview on WJR-AM.

Under the proposal, backed by state Sen. Lana Theis, R-Brighton, Grand Valley State University would have been able to issue $1,000 grants for students to use on tutoring, materials, after-school programs and summer school programs. To participate, students had to be in kindergarten through fifth grade and be less than proficient in reading.

The university, located in Allendale, would have had to establish the initiative by Aug. 1 and would have been able to keep $1 million for administrative costs. Theis, a conservative lawmaker, argued the initiative would help kids who suffered learning loss during the pandemic.

"Parents simply pick a program or service from a catalog that fits their child’s needs and the scholarship pays up to $1,000," Theis said last month. "These resources will help close the learning gap for thousands of students, going a long way to help them with the tools they need to become proficient in reading.

"The goal of this program is to provide as many good options to parents as humanly possible."

However, in a letter asking Whitmer to veto the funding, which was part of the $17 billion education budget, the Michigan Association of School Boards and the Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators called it a "voucher program."

"Instead of syphoning off this large amount of funding for vouchers, students would be better off if this money was reinvested in our schools through direct funding to local and intermediate school districts to support Michigan’s reading standards," representatives for the two organizations wrote the governor. "Our members have the expertise to create reading programs that aid students if given the proper funding to fully implement them."

Whitmer stripped the program from the education budget when she signed the overall funding plan into law on July 13. Bobby Leddy, the governor's spokesman, said Whitmer had tripled the number of literacy coaches in schools and helped flow $3 billion in federal emergency funds to benefit students as they return to classrooms.

"We look forward to working with the Legislature to continue the conversation about this funding to support literacy initiatives that will help our kids," Leddy said.

On Wednesday, the GOP-controlled state House failed to reverse the veto of the literacy grants. The House split 54-54 on the veto override Wednesday when it needed a two-thirds majority to overturn Whitmer's elimination of the funding.

Rep. Regina Weiss, an Oak Park Democrat and former teacher, said the House already allocated in the same budget $31.5 million to provide early literacy coaches to school districts. But the $155 million allocation would direct that money to an "unproven" program. 

"If we care about literacy and ensuring every child in Michigan is set up for success we need to take a very, very thorough look at these taxpayer dollars and ensure that we are spending them responsibly to serve our children," Weiss said. "Not to serve the DeVos agenda.”

Rep. Brad Paquette, R-Niles, a former teacher, defended the spending. Opposition to the grants, he said, amounted to a rejection of new approaches to learning and reflected a perceived superiority in the education community to parents who are well-equipped to made education decisions for their children.

"Let’s use these scholarships, which allow a different approach to achieve some different, better results," Paquette said on the House floor. "This is supposed to be a new normal.

"Even if these could be seen in any way as a voucher — although it only applies to public school kids — who wouldn’t use a voucher in the real world to achieve the results personally desired to meet one’s needs?" he said.

The Great Lakes Education Project, an interest group connected to the DeVos family, has accused Whitmer of "playing politics" in the veto.