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Mike Shirkey: I’m open to changing Michigan’s third-grade reading law


Related: Michigan GOP: Cancel standardized tests and 3rd grade reading law this year

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey says he is open to making changes to the state’s controversial third-grade reading law after hearing concerns from teachers and administrators.

That law, passed in 2016 but only taking effect this school year, recommends that third-graders who are more than a year behind in reading be held back in grade. The Michigan Department of Education projects that about 5,000 students will be flagged for retention under the “read-or-flunk” law.

The law was passed primarily on the support of Republicans in the Legislature and signed by former Republican Gov. Rick Snyder. Democrats have generally been critical of the law, as have most education leaders and teachers.

On Tuesday, Shirkey, a Clarklake Republican, told Bridge he’d be willing to revisit the law in 2020. The majority leader said he wasn’t considering a full repeal, though he intimated changes could soften the law in some way.

“When we see a problem, when we try to attack it, it's more often than not we overshoot, then we have to bring it back,” Shirkey said. “It's never going to be perfect. I think it's a character flaw to think that any legislature can pass a law, and then never have to be re-looked.” 

Shirkey declined to say what changes he’s considering. 

“I don't know that I can give you a formula for what I want to see happen,” Shirkey said. “All I know is, I'm getting sincere feedback from teachers and administrators. These are not folks who don't believe reading's not important.”

The majority leader also declined to say whether he’s considering delaying implementation of the law.

 “I want to have the opportunity to really talk about it,” Shirkey said.

House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, was noncommittal about changes to the third-grade reading law, but said he was “open to any ideas that the majority leader and others would have on how to improve our education system.”

Students who are poor readers in third grade struggle to catch up with their classmates, impacting rates of high school completion, college enrollment and future earnings. 

Advocates of the law say holding children back until they read at grade level better prepares them for the future and incentivizes schools and families to give extra attention to struggling third-grade readers so they can move on with their classmates.

The primary sponsor of the law, former state legislator Amanda Price, recently wrote a guest commentary in Bridge defending the law.

“Michigan’s Read by Grade 3 Law isn’t some scary new policy looming over local students – it’s an essential reform that’s already yielding real results that benefit Michigan kids,” Price wrote.

Educators disagree with the retention portion of the law, and studies have found that grade retention has negative academic effects.

The governor’s office could not be reached for comment late Tuesday.

Bridge is following four third-grade classrooms during the 2019-2020 school year to chronicle the impact of the law on teachers, students and families.

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