Opinion: Whitmer is wrong on third-grade reading law

Tim Kelly
Eighth graders do their reading assignment during teacher Shana Ramin's language and literature class at Norup Middle School in Oak Park.

Well, that didn't take long. In just over two months, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has called for the state's largest gas tax in history; suggested we increase taxes on small business; and thinks getting kids to read by the end of third grade is a mistake.

So goes the much-ballyhooed attempt at bipartisanship. While all three of these proposals are problematic in their own way, and very likely dead on arrival with Republican majorities in the Legislature, it's the attack on the third-grade reading law that will perhaps have the greatest impact.

Whitmer's decision to fight this law is not only wrongheaded and shortsighted, but counterproductive. Just a year ago, The Detroit News reported that Michigan third-graders had the largest achievement decline among 11 other states over the last three years.

Most disheartening, these declines come amid a significant increase in school aid targeted specifically at early literacy: $76 million has been spent over the last thee years to support and prepare students and schools for the full implementation of the reading law, which begins this fall. These funds are in addition to the billions we already spend on Great Start Readiness and K-3 programs, ostensibly to prepare our youngest students to be good readers.

Thankfully, both former state Rep. Amanda Price and Great Lakes Education Project's Beth DeShone voiced their disapproval and concerns. They pointed to the fact that much work has and continues to be done in improving literacy instruction in Michigan, and that any setbacks or delays could very well thwart necessary gains.

As a matter of fact, much of the work being done to improve reading proficiency in the state would simply not have happened without passage and early implementation of the third-grade initiative.

To be fair, Whitmer doesn't believe that all kids shouldn't be proficient readers; she just doesn't believe in retaining students who aren't. She and her MEA supporters have never liked the idea of retention and fought the legislation through, and after, its passage. In an opinion I wrote for this paper back in November, I predicted as much and warned that we can ill afford to backtrack on this most important legislation.

What's most disappointing about the governor's position is that it's so predictable. I believe that one of the reasons Michigan continuously lags the country in K-12 performance is our damnable reluctance to follow through on many education policies we pass.

My disdain crosses party lines. Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, former state Superintendent Brian Whiston and many of my colleagues in the Legislature couldn't find the nerve to close poor performing schools despite many years of warning and explicit legislation that demanded such action.

This leads me to the inexorable conclusion that we the people simply just don't care that nearly 60 percent of our third-graders statewide don't meet proficiency standards, or that 90 percent in Detroit fail to do so.

Unless, and until, we as a state decide that these and other education realities — like 70 percent truancy rates in our largest city — are unacceptable, we will inevitably continue to follow a daunting and dismal path.

We need to get serious about the performance of our schools and our students or we will forever lag our counterparts in economic growth and development, and shortchange the potential prosperity of our citizenry.

Tim Kelly is the former chairman of the House Education Reform Committee in the Michigan House of Representatives.