Opinion: Real support for literacy, education efforts

Paula Herbart

With reading month every March, educators see a flood of policymakers wanting to spend time in classrooms reading to children and touting the importance of literacy.

This year, however, there is a genuine effort to put money behind efforts to help all students read and learn, instead of the decades of disinvestment educators and parents have come to expect.

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

During the campaign, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer committed to reinvest in our public schools and her first budget shows she is true to her word. In particular, she focused on the need to provide real support for student literacy efforts, rather than the “test and punish” model of the past.

In 2016, then Gov. Rick Snyder signed a law pushing for every student to be proficient in reading by the end of third grade, with students unable to reach that goal subject to retention – a solution which does nothing to actually improve student reading skill. The law did include a variety of supports for literacy efforts, in particular hiring literacy coaches to help educators better meet the needs of all young readers. Unfortunately, funding for those coaches was woefully inadequate.

Whitmer’s budget proposes tripling the number of literacy coaches and, most importantly, provides the funding to do it. This is a huge step in the right direction, especially as part of a broader investment in the education of every Michigan student.

Overall, Whitmer’s education budget proposes a $507 million increase in K-12 spending next year, the largest increase in education funding in 18 years. The plan includes a $180 per-student increase in the minimum foundation allowance and a substantial funding increase for instruction of at-risk, special education and career/technical education, acknowledging the reality that it doesn’t cost the same amount of money to educate every student.

These additional investments, beyond basic per pupil funding, will provide resources and extra assistance for groups of students most likely to struggle with literacy.

Solid research abounds in support of this substantial education increase. The 2017 School Finance Research Collaborative study determined that the base cost to educate a Michigan student (not including extra costs like at-risk and special education) is $9,590—approximately $2,000 less than we currently spend. A recent study by Michigan State University further highlighted our spectacular disinvestment in public schools, showing Michigan dead last among all states in education funding increases over the past 25 years.

To pay for this increase, Whitmer is making good on her pledge to halt raids on the School Aid Fund. According to a 2018 report from the Michigan League for Public Policy, $4.5 billion has been diverted from the SAF in the last decade. Just last December, the Legislature took $300 million in current and future school aid revenue to fund road repairs and environmental cleanups. We can’t continue to balance our state budget on the backs of Michigan’s children.

With increased funding, schools will have choices to make — good choices for a change. In addition to making long-delayed classroom investments like technology and books, some districts can reinstate school counselors, social workers, and librarians that were eliminated under past education funding cuts. In understaffed districts, some may decide to hire additional classroom teachers and reduce class sizes.

And real support will be available to help every Michigan student become lifelong readers and learners.

Paula Herbart is president of the Michigan Education Association.

Labor Voices

Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers President Gary Jones, Teamsters President James Hoffa, Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber and Michigan Education Association President Paula Herbart.