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Tutoring and teacher retention top Whitmer’s education agenda as she seeks second term

Triple the number of school literacy coaches. Closure of the school funding gap. Creation of a college scholarship program for education majors.

Governor Gretchen Whitmer counts them among her educational accomplishments. But the incumbent Democrat has more than she wants to do if re-elected.

That includes checking things on his first-term to-do list that have been derailed by the pandemic or the Republican-controlled legislature. This also includes managing the effects of the pandemic, such as academic and mental health setbacks from long periods of teaching online, and teacher burnout that has led to shortages in districts across the state. .

In many ways, Whitmer’s record has been defined by her response to the pandemic. In March 2020, days after the first confirmed case of COVID in the state, she ordered the closure of all K-12 public schools as a health precaution and continued to exercise broad supervisory powers. emergency until the courts and the legislature put the brakes on it.

The following school year, as other governors pushed for schools to reopen classrooms and return to normal – some went as far as prohibit districts from requiring face masks and threatening to withhold funding – Whitmer remained a strong advocate for keeping COVID prevention measures in place.

The record drew attacks from Republican challenger Tudor Dixon, who accused Whitmer of “robbing students of their education” by ordering schools closed in 2020 and leaving local school officials decide if and when to resume in-person instruction.

Some of these closures have persisted into 2021, dealing a severe blow to student learning and mental health.

Whitmer says helping them on both fronts is a priority heading into 2023. And she’s taken advantage of Michigan’s strong economic recovery and federal relief funds to lead – in tandem with the Republican leaders of the Legislative Assembly unprecedented investment in mental health education and resources for children.

“We have to do everything for our children to make sure they do better in school,” she said.

More money in the school aid budget

Whitmer, 51, was a longtime East Lansing state legislator before she was elected governor in 2018. Her mother and grandmother were teachers. His grandfather was superintendent of the Pontiac school district. She and her children attended Michigan public schools.

“That’s why the work I’ve done has been centered around public education — protecting it and making more investments,” she said.

Under his watch, and following negotiations with the GOP-controlled legislature, the state’s school aid budget has grown from $14.8 billion to $19 billion, with a big increase in the last budget for special education, mental health services, and student retention programs. teachers.

During this time, she thwarted conservative efforts to direct public funds to private schools, veto a voucher type program for reading scholarships.

Going forward, Whitmer said she wants to provide a tutor for each child and create individualized learning plans.

Still, Michigan under Whitmer has been slower to come up with a comprehensive tutoring plan than other states that have suffered big academic losses from the pandemic. While many other states were pouring federal COVID relief funds into statewide tutoring programs, and Michigan voters identified tutoring as a top priority, Whitmer didn’t make it one. a key part of his original plan for federal money. Months later, she proposed a $280 million tutoring plan, but only $52 million made it into the public school aid budget.

Whitmer’s campaign hasn’t explained why it didn’t embrace tutoring sooner.

Spokeswoman Maeve Coyle noted that Whitmer has made historic investments in educational resources, including stronger one-to-one instruction and more reading coaches. These coaches are specially trained to help class teachers improve their reading methods. The $24 million Whitmer negotiated in the school aid budget was enough to increase the number of coaches from 92 to 279 statewide.

Whitmer also increased state investment in school mental health services to help students recover from trauma so they are ready to learn. She wants to do more next year if re-elected.

Teacher retention is a priority

Governor Gretchen Whitmer speaks to supporters at a campaign event outside the Trenton Cultural Center.

Tracie Mauriello / Michigan Bridge / Chalkbeat

A second term would mean a second chance to persuade the Legislature to offer retention bonuses to teachers and pilot a home-based version of the Great Start Readiness preschool program — two of his priorities that Republicans rejected in budget negotiations. The Democrats hope not only to beat Dixon, but also to strengthen Whitmer’s hand by taking control of the Legislature.

Whitmer portrayed Dixon as an agent of Betsy DeVos, the Trump administration’s education secretary and longtime supporter of private school vouchers and other initiatives that would direct taxpayer dollars to private schools to promote school choice.

DeVos – who helped fund a campaign for a ballot initiative allowing people to claim tax credits for contributions to scholarship accounts for private schools and education services – was a major funder of Dixon’s campaign fund. .

“She and Betsy DeVos are arm in arm, and it’s DeVos’ agenda to starve public schools of resources, to divert them to for-profit charters or parochial schools,” Whitmer said in a recent interview. “It’s a dangerous strategy for Michigan and it will leave a lot of kids behind.”

Education advocates predict the plan could slash tax revenue by up to $500 million.

“It would be devastating, and that’s why I think public education is very important on this ballot,” Whitmer said.

Supporters at a recent campaign rally in Trenton, downriver from Detroit, said they appreciated Whitmer’s focus on recruiting and retaining teachers at a time of deepening staffing shortages and the declining interest in teacher preparation programs.

“She is very intentional about empowering teachers and providing them with what they need,” said Velma Jean Overman, 67, of Inkster, who attended the rally with her 6-year-old granddaughter.

Whitmer’s four-year plan to provide teachers with annual retention bonuses of up to $4,000 has been another casualty in battles with the Legislative Assembly, but will likely be back on the table if she wins re-election.

“If we’re asking people to take on this critical work, they need to be able to earn a good living, be treated with respect, and have the support they need to be successful,” Whitmer said.

She said she hopes that in November voters will elect moderate senators and representatives who will be more receptive to retention bonuses and her other education initiatives.

“We cannot see each other as enemies,” she said. “We have to be partners. When we succeed in public education, it helps every child, regardless of the home they live in or the politics of the community.

Tracie Mauriello covers state education policy for Chalkbeat Detroit and Bridge Michigan. Join her at [email protected].

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