young student at a desk
At Wednesday’s State of the State address, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer will ask lawmakers to fund her Get MI Kids Back on Track program. (Sylvia Jarrus for Chalkbeat)

If Gov. Gretchen Whitmer gets her way, Michigan children could start getting one-on-one tutoring in reading before spring break.

This story originally appeared in Chalkbeat Detroit

Tutoring is her top education priority as she prepares to deliver her fifth State of the State address Wednesday night in Lansing.

“Unfortunately, the last few years have disrupted learning patterns, and in-class instruction alone is not enough,” Whitmer said in a written statement to Chalkbeat and Bridge Michigan.

She is asking lawmakers to quickly fund her Get MI Kids Back on Track plan, a program she first asked for eight months ago to address learning challenges through tutoring and after-school programs and help the state’s long-term economic growth by better preparing students for the workforce, according to her office. 

When Whitmer put forward the idea last May, she found little traction in a legislature controlled by Republicans reluctant to give her any policy wins during an election year.

The next budget year begins July 1, so starting the program before then would require a supplemental appropriation to this year’s budget. 

Whitmer’s initial $280 million proposal came three weeks after a report by Chalkbeat Detroit, Bridge Michigan, and the Detroit Free Press found that a lack of state leadership on tutoring resulted in an uneven patchwork of programs. 

Michigan has no statewide tutoring strategy, but individual districts including Detroit Public Schools Community District — the state’s largest — have their own programs. Many other states already had comprehensive statewide strategies to recruit teachers and dedicate funds to expand tutoring programs. 

Enactment of MI Kids Back on Track is far more likely now that Democrats control the Legislature.

State Rep. Matt Koleszar, chairperson of the House Education Committee, declined to discuss the tutoring program ahead of the governor’s address, but indicated he is on board with her priorities.

“I’m excited to work hand-in-hand with the governor and to continue on our path of record funding for our schools, and provide for our students with proven and innovative methods,” a Democrat from Plymouth, said in a text message Sunday.

State Rep. Jaime Greene, Republican vice chairperson of the House Education Committee, said she supports efforts to compensate for learning loss during the pandemic but hopes there also is room for school choice in Whitmer’s K-12 agenda.

Pandemic-related school closures “have greatly affected students, and as a state we need to improve opportunities in many different areas to help students get back on track,” Greene of Richmond said in an email message Sunday.

“I hope the governor on Wednesday will also address the need for parents to have a greater role in their children’s education. Parents have the inherent right to help choose the manner and content of their child’s curriculum,” she said.

School choice is unlikely to be on Whitmer’s agenda. She has opposed proposals that would divert money from public schools. That includes a $155 million GOP tutoring proposal she vetoed in 2021. That plan would have provided publicly funded scholarships of up to $1,000 for elementary students to get private tutoring or reading instruction.

John Damoose of Harbor Springs, Republican vice chairperson of the Senate Education Committee, declined to comment on Get MI Kids Back on Track until after Whitmer’s speech, when he will know more about her plans.

Typically, State of the State addresses provide the broad framework of governors’ goals. Details such as cost emerge later in budget addresses and spending proposals.  

Research shows that tutoring is a highly effective way to increase achievement, especially for students from lower income families. Those are the same families whose communities were hit hardest by the pandemic.

That’s born out in Michigan test scores. They sharply declined during the pandemic, particularly for students from economically disadvantaged families. Fourth graders recorded their lowest reading scores in three decades on the National Assessment of Education Progress

Academic struggles were more pronounced among children in large urban districts with high poverty rates. Researchers from Harvard and Stanford universities found that students in Detroit, Saginaw, and Lansing lost the equivalent of about a year or more of learning during the pandemic. 

“Right now, kids in Michigan need extra support to catch up and get on track for long-term success,” Tracey Troy, chairperson of the Michigan Parents’ Council, said in a written statement forwarded by the governor’s office.

Whitmer’s proposal “will expand tutoring, after-school programs, and other learning supports to get kids one-on-one time with a caring, qualified educator that they need to succeed,” said Troy, who also is past president of the Michigan PTA.

Education advocates have been calling for a concerted effort to bring individualized instruction to students who need it most. In a report this month, the advocacy group Education Trust-Midwest said intensive tutoring is key to post-pandemic academic recovery and called on lawmakers to invest in it.

But finding funding isn’t enough.

Districts also need to find people to staff tutoring programs as districts including DPSCD already are struggling to find enough staff for existing programs.

 State Superintendent Michael Rice acknowledged the problem at this month’s State Board of Education meeting. He said he is looking to the Legislature to provide funding to hire and train enough tutors to work with the neediest children at least three times a week, either individually or in pairs.

“They need to be trained tutors, not simply Mikey from the curb who’s come in,” Rice said during the meeting. “Mikey can be trained, but Mikey needs training.” 

Whitmer also is expected to address other education issues during her speech, including school funding and efforts to attract and retain teachers.

She also will discuss her broader goals for the state, such as making the state more competitive, bolstering manufacturing, and protecting fundamental rights.

The State of the State address is scheduled for 7 p.m. Wednesday before a joint session of the Michigan Senate and House of Representatives. It is expected to be livestreamed and broadcast live on many local television stations.

Tracie Mauriello covers state education policy for Chalkbeat Detroit and Bridge Michigan. Reach her at tmauriello@chalkbeat.org.

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