Editorial: Whitmer not above Michigan's reading law

The Detroit News

In her response to the State of the Union address last week, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer used a favorite catchphrase of Democrats when she said “no one is above the law.” While she was referring to President Donald Trump, Whitmer should take her own words to heart. 

The previous week, when delivering the State of the State, Whitmer openly called for families to work around Michigan’s third grade reading law, passed in 2016 but just now starting to take effect. And she’s asking community foundations across the state to help these families with children facing retention “navigate” the law — code for aiding them in securing exemptions to the requirements. 

“This punitive law could be a nightmare for families and this initiative will give parents and students the resources and support they need to get through it,” Whitmer said during her speech

More:Whitmer aims to educate parents on reading retention law

For a governor to downplay a law she simply doesn’t like in such a public way is no way to govern. Instead of working with Republican leaders in the Legislature to improve upon the current law, Whitmer has ostracized them (many of whom helped pass those reforms). 

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer delivers her the State of the State address at the Capitol Building in Lansing, Mich. on Jan. 29, 2020.

As Whitmer acknowledged in her speech, this state ranks in the bottom 10 for literacy. Those numbers are even more dire in urban areas such as Detroit, which consistently posts the lowest reading and math scores of large public school districts around the U.S. 

Rather than ask foundations to help families skirt the law, Whitmer should encourage them to support programs that are seeing real results for students. Beyond Basics, for example, has an excellent track record in getting struggling readers in Detroit up to grade level in a short timeframe. General Motors recently committed $1 million to that effort. 

The governor points to her efforts to double down on early literacy, including her proposal of a new preschool program for struggling districts. 

Yet that doesn’t address the problem facing too many Michigan third graders who currently can’t read or struggle to read at grade level. The state’s former policy of passing students who can’t read along to fourth grade clearly hasn’t worked.

And such social promotion doesn’t help any student. In fact, it’s incredibly harmful. That’s the actual “nightmare” Whitmer needs to address.  

The third grade reading law already includes many exemptions for families and schools, in addition to early intervention measures, and those issues were seriously debated at the time.

As Ben DeGrow, education policy director at the Mackinac Center, has pointed out, Michigan should stay the course with the law and give it a chance. Other states like Florida have a similar law and have evidence showing that students who were held back ended up showing much more progress later on, compared to socially promoted students who continued to struggle. 

DeGrow notes an area Michigan should pay more attention to is teacher preparation programs, which aren’t doing enough to get teachers ready to teach reading — especially to students who may require additional assistance. 

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who helped oversee many of his state’s effective education reforms, told us last year that states need to “be bold” if they want their schools to improve. 

Michigan continues to prove it’s not up to that challenge.