Michigan blue wave suggests changes to ed. policy on horizon

Michigan blue wave suggests changes to ed. policy on horizon

(Mich.) Control of the Michigan Board of Education and the governor’s office shifted to the Democrats Tuesday night–a win for opponents of closing down low-performing schools and the state policy for holding back third-graders who aren’t proficient in reading.

Democrat Gretchen Whitmer defeated Republican Bill Schuette in the fight to succeed Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, who is finishing his final term. Meanwhile, Democrats Judy Pritchett and Tiffany Tilley were leading the 11 candidates who had been vying for two seats on the eight-member board of education.

The only incumbent in that race, Republican Richard Zeile, was in fourth place as of Wednesday morning.

The state board, which is tasked with hiring a state superintendent and overseeing the state department of education, has been evenly divided between parties for the last two years. Now the split will be 6-2.

Education in Michigan has been in a state of turmoil in recent years. Last year, state-ordered school closures were on the horizon for up to 100 chronically under-performing schools–something officials said would cause serious logistical problems for the state’s largest district, Detroit Public Schools Community District. Of the 124 schools ranked in the bottom 5 percent in 2016, 47 were public schools in Detroit.

Lawmakers scrambled to address the issue by introducing legislation to repeal the state’s federally-based failing schools law, and replace it with something developed with local community input. And in an effort to turnaround failing schools without resorting to a state takeover, 21 districts announced they would partner with the Michigan Department of Education to expand access to assessment tools and research-based programs, and develop connections to outside partners that can provide supplemental student supports.

The state is also dealing with a literacy crisis–state data shows 56 percent of third-graders statewide failed the reading test included on the Michigan’s annual assessment in 2017. Under a bill signed in 2016, students are to be held back if they are not at or near reading proficiency by the end of third grade.

And officials at Flint Community Schools, site of the country’s biggest drinking water contamination emergency, said that they would continue to use bottled water this school year—or until the city and public health regulators can agree that the municipal system is safe.

Whitmer, who will take office Jan. 1, has said she would like to nix Michigan’s third-grade “read-or-flunk” law before it goes into effect in 2020. Instead, she has said she will increase early childhood education funding to expand universal preschool and ensure students are better prepared for kindergarten.

“Prioritizing early education services from birth to five years does more to bolster lifetime literacy outcomes than any punitive measure, like retaining students in third grade,” she wrote in her campaign plan for education, which also includes goals such as tripling the number of literacy coaches in Michigan.

She also intends to create a state infrastructure bank that could help fund replacement of lead drinking water pipes, and restructure school financing in a way that provides additional funding to schools serving English learners, at-risk youth and students with disabilities.

Meanwhile, both new board of education members have said they would fight against closing schools, and instead work to foster stronger partnerships between schools, the state education department and community organizations.

In many regards, the two agree in many aspects. For instance, both have expressed to local reporters support for increasing per-pupil spending for English learners, students with disabilities and low-income youth; addressing high rates of chronic absenteeism by working to provide wrap-around services to help address issues outside the school’s control; and ensuring references to gay rights, Roe v. Wade, climate change and other controversial topics are not deleted from the state social studies standards.

Their differences in opinion appear to be minor. In regard to the retention of third-graders who do not score proficient on statewide reading exams, Pritchett has said such a plan should be eliminated altogether. Instead, she said, all efforts should be directed toward providing intense and targeted intervention for students who are demonstrating challenges in reading.

Tilley, on the other hand, is not opposed to holding back a student who is struggling–she just doesn’t believe that decision should be made based on the results of standardized tests. Rather, such a decision should ultimately be jointly made between the teacher and parents, she said.

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