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Michigan GOP lawmakers advance $1,500 student grants for learning loss

classroom
The Learning Loss Recovery Grant Program would allow students to apply for up to $1,500 for tutoring and other education expenses. Proponents say the initiative will help students catch up after two hard years of the pandemic. Opponents say there are better ways to get students caught up academically. (Shutterstock)

LANSING—Education bills that would provide Michigan families with up to $1,500 per student to address learning loss as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic are one step closer to becoming a law. 

Republicans in House and Senate education committees advanced the bills Tuesday, but Democrats are skeptical and the Michigan Department of Education opposes the legislation. 

Sponsor

If the measures become law, parents would get to choose from a “marketplace” of education vendors to help their students get caught up academically. The Michigan Department of Treasury would hire a company to administer the “learning loss recovery grant program.”

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Students could use the money for tutoring, courses, software, curriculum, before- and after-school programming, academic day camps and other education services. The funds could not be used for tuition or expenses at a private school.

Once students are approved to receive grant money, they can select a service and must use the money within a year. 

Rep. Julie Alexander, R-Hanover, is proposing House Bill 5859 while Sen. John Bizon, R-Battle Creek, is proposing Senate Bill 925.

“Each county in our state is unique; as is each child that we were teaching,” Alexander told Bridge Michigan Tuesday afternoon. “So given each community, given each family, a unique set of opportunities is what's important. And ultimately, we hope when we look at the data from the vendors that we will see solid outcomes.”

But Dayna Polehanki, D-Livonia, told Bridge she thinks the program has “layers of red tape” and that a better way to administer an academic-improvement program would be to give money directly to local school districts. 

“I think that's the most direct route and most impactful way to get money to these students,” she said. 

She said she also voted against the bill because it is not clear how much the program would cost or where that money would come from. 

If the program is approved, students who were enrolled in school as of March 9, 2020, when the pandemic arrived in Michigan, and had not received a diploma by that date would be eligible to receive a grant. A previous version of the bill had limited eligibility to students who had spent at least two semesters in a Michigan school since March 9, 2020. 

The state would need to give higher priority to students who can demonstrate “academic deficiency.” Students could use report cards, test scores, teacher recommendations or other items to demonstrate this. If created, the grant program would have at least three rounds of funding with each round including at least 40 percent of grantees living at or below the federal poverty line. 

School districts across Michigan have already submitted plans to use some of their federal COVID-19 relief money on tutoring with some already administering a program this school year, according to district spending plans submitted to the state and obtained by Chalkbeat Detroit. Bridge Michigan is partnering with Chalkbeat Detroit and the Detroit Free Press to report on how schools are spending the historic investment in schools. 

Sen. Jim Runestad, R-White Lake Township, told Bridge Tuesday afternoon he supports the bill because it allows students to get additional help for their academics. He said he has heard from several teachers that some students have weathered the storm of the pandemic well and that they have been resilient. 

“But there is a tremendous number (of students) who do not. And then there’s a particular group that has really been negatively impacted. We can’t let them fall by the wayside.”
He said this bill allows students to get “ramped up.” 

But Democrats said they were wary.

“This is just another attempt at a Betsy DeVos-style voucher bill,” Rep. Matt Koleszar, D-Plymouth, told Bridge. “And I'm adamantly opposed to any voucher bills that come through; they're not good for public education.”

Koleszar said he considers this effort to be a voucher plan because it would direct public money to private vendors. 

The bills come during an election year where the two parties disagree on how schools should move forward from the pandemic and what options parents should have.  

Former U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is backing and partially funding a Michigan ballot measure that would create a donation-funded scholarship program to cover public and private education expenses. A separate group ー a coalition of teacher unions, public school boards and other education advocacy organizations ー is campaigning against DeVos’ latest effort to change the Michigan education system

Earlier this month, Alexander said the learning-loss grant  bill was modeled after programming in other states. Her office provided a list of five states that have something similar including Arizona, Idaho, Kansas, Ohio, and Oklahoma. In at least two other states, ClassWallet has been selected as the vendor for the program. 

The company registered as a lobbyist in the state of Michigan on March 2, 2020.  Alexander said she has “never spoken” to ClassWallet or the lobbying group hired to lobby for the company. 

She said she has heard the company name mentioned but ultimately she wants the Department of Treasury to make an “informed decision on who the best vendor to facilitate this program is.”

Runestad said it is important to him that the vendor chosen to administer this program is “data driven.”

Sponsor

The House Education Committee voted Tuesday to recommend the second substitute bill of House Bill 5859 with a 8-5 vote where Republicans voted yes while Democrats voted no. In the Senate Education Committee on Education and Career Readiness, members voted Tuesday on the second substitute of Senate Bill 925. The five Republicans voted yes, while Polehanki and Sen. Erika Geiss, D-Taylor, voted no.

The Michigan Department of Education opposes the bill. MDE spokesman Bill Disessa told Bridge Michigan by email that the opposition is because of “some unknowns” including how much the program would cost the state and where that money would come from.

The bills still need to pass the full Michigan House and Senate, chambers both controlled by Republicans, and then be signed by Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. It’s unclear whether the governor would support the initiative. Her spokesperson Bobby Leddy said by email the office is not yet ready to comment on the bills but said the governor is eager to work with lawmakers to get an education budget passed that addresses the learning loss concerns of students and families.

Whitmer’s proposed $18.4 billion education budget plan includes $25 million in one-time funding and $25 million in ongoing funding for before- and after-school programing to help “accelerate academic recovery,” according to budget materials presented to lawmakers in February. 

Leddy said the governor’s proposal to increase the base per-pupil funding for every student Michigan would also help students including giving them greater access to mental health support and before- and after-school opportunities.

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