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House rejects tutoring bill. What’s next for Michigan’s struggling students?

child being tutored
The Michigan House of Representatives failed to pass a bill on Tuesday that would have created a “marketplace” of education vendors for tutoring, camps and other education expenses. (Shutterstock)

A Republican bill that would have given parents up to $1,500 a child to use for tutoring and other education expenses failed to get enough votes in the House on Tuesday. Five Republicans joined Democrats, who have been opposed to the bill since it was in committee, to defeat the bill.

Struggling students still may get additional help next school year. Between the federal education stimulus dollars, the state’s projected budget surplus and the different budget negotiations, it’s possible that students will receive additional academic help in a different form. 

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Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has proposed $50 million in her budget proposal for before and after school programming to help with academic recovery. The House’s budget recommendation also includes $50 million for before and after school programming and another $15 million for tutoring in K-8 students.

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The state’s schools also received about $6 billion in federal COVID-19 relief funds geared to help schools and students recover from the pandemic. Tutoring has been lauded by top policymakers like President Joe Biden and education experts. 

A 2021 paper said tutoring is “among the most effective education interventions ever to be subjected to rigorous evaluation.”

Those efforts are considered urgent in the wake of learning slow downs during the pandemic. A recent analysis of student benchmark test scores from fall 2020 and 2021 show that about one in four elementary and middle school students tested demonstrated no academic growth in that year. Educators also report they’ve witnessed students, particularly in early elementary grades who are struggling with speech and social-emotional deficits caused by long waves of virtual learning and mask requirements. 

A spokesperson for Speaker of the House Jason Wentworth said the speaker knew the House Bill 5859 did not have enough votes to make it through but the speaker and the bill’s sponsor, Julie Alexander, R-Hanover, decided to put it to a vote anyway so some members could show support. There were 51 yes votes and 56 no votes.  

The Republicans who voted against the bill offered various reasons:

Rep. Steve Johnson, R-Wayland, said in an emailed statement he was “sick and tired of spending more money on new programs.” 

Rep. John Reilly, R-Oakland Township, said in an emailed statement he was concerned about the structure of the program, which would have had the Michigan Department of Treasury hire a company to administer the grant program and then parents would choose from a “marketplace” of education vendors. 

“This creates a quasi public-private partnership where money in the fund is distributed by a private vendor and then students can use the money to purchase supplies and services through a private ‘marketplace,’” Reilly wrote. “I have concerns over which private companies will benefit from this, and which ones will be left out (essentially picking winners and losers).” 

The other three Republicans who voted against the bill ─ Steve Carra, Sue Allor and Scott VanSingel ─ did not return requests for comment.

Democrats say the bill would have diverted money away from public schools, instead, creating what they viewed as a voucher system. Alexander’s bill would not have allowed grants to be spent on private school tuition but would have been used on private companies providing education services.

Alexander’s bill is not the only Republican-led plan to provide students and families with money for education expenses. Republicans pitched a program last fall that would have given students scholarships to pay for education expenses including private school tuition and tutoring. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer vetoed the plan. Advocates for the plan are hoping to revive the plan through the Let MI Kids Learn petition, but failed to meet the deadline last week to qualify for the November ballot. Organizers say they will continue to collect signatures. 

Gov. Whitmer also proposed a separate plan in May that would spend $280 million on tutoring.The proposed plan would spend state dollars to run background checks on potential tutors and pay them for their work with students. Tutoring programs could run before, during, or after school.

Democrats argue that the best use of state dollars for catching students up following the pandemic is to provide funding to public schools. Public schools have used federal stimulus funds to pay for many of the items in Alexander’s bill such as tutoring or day camps. 

Recent reporting from a collaboration between Bridge Michigan, Chalkbeat Detroit and the Detroit Free Press found Michigan has not spend any of its state-level share of education COVID aid to support tutoring programs unlike at least 14 other states. 

Additionally, school tutoring programs across the state vary in scope and adherence to best practices. Reporters analyzed over 800 district spending plans submitted to the state and surveyed, interviewed or visited 16 school districts and found that student-tutor ratios were often higher than the recommended ratio and districts were often relying on their own teachers to take on the additional task of being tutors after school.

District leaders also often chose to use their own staff citing highly-trained individuals who already had built relationships with students. But reporters found this often limited the scale of tutoring initiatives as districts cope with staffing shortages and teacher exhaustion. 

Some schools reported higher student confidence and higher benchmark scores among students who received tutoring.

“The focus of our plan should be the educational enrichment of our students, not the financial enrichment of private businesses,” Rep. Brenda Carter, D-Pontiac, said in a statement after the House vote on Alexander’s bill.

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Carter called the bill a “scheme to divert taxpayer dollars away from our kids.” 

Education advocates say tutoring is a key approach to making that happen.

“There's a lot of obstacles to private tutoring,” said Bob McCann, executive director of the K-12 Alliance of Michigan. “When you have a tutor in the school and available to that student while they're in the classroom, that's where students learn best. We know that works best.”

The bill’s sponsor, Alexander, said in a statement she was “deeply disappointed for the Michigan kids failed by this vote.” She did not return a request for comment about what she plans to do next.

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