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Michigan Senate panel removes flunking from third grade reading law

kid writing
The Senate Education Committee passed a bill Tuesday that would remove a requirement to hold third grade students back if they are a year or more behind in reading. Sen. Dayna Polehanki, D-Livonia, sponsored the bill. (Bridge photo by Dale Young)
  • Michigan’s third grade reading law requires students repeat the grade if they are a year or more behind in reading 
  • Democrats voted in a Senate committee Tuesday to remove that requirement from the reading law 
  • Lawmakers from both parties have qualms about flunking students but there are differences on how to best help struggling readers 

LANSING—Democratic lawmakers advanced a bill Tuesday that removes a requirement that students far behind in third grade reading repeat the grade. 

Democrats, freshly in power in Lansing, are eager to dismantle the read-or-flunk provision in the state’s third grade reading law, passed by Republicans under then-Gov. Rick Snyder. They took the first step Tuesday, passing the bill out of the Senate Education Committee.  

The current law requires third graders who are a year or more behind on reading to repeat the year. While the law has many loopholes, Democrats and a number of education advocates say the retention requirement is punitive, and note studies showing that low-income students and students of color were more likely to be held back than white and more affluent third graders.  


Sen. Dayna Polehanki, D-Livonia, bill sponsor and chair of the Senate Education Committee, noted other studies showing grade retention has negative psychological effects on students, can be costly for school systems and doesn’t ensure students are actually able to read. 

Polehanki told Bridge she felt “darn good” about Tuesday’s 5-1 committee vote, which she noted maintained other aspects of the reading law, such as providing more intensive supports for struggling readers. 

All five Democrats on the committee voted in favor of Senate Bill 12, while Sen. John Damoose, R-Harbor Springs, voted no and Sen. Ruth Johnson, R-Groveland Township, voted to pass but said she hopes to support the bill in the future with an amendment. The measure now goes to the full Senate. 

Damoose said now is not the time to take away accountability to schools. 

“I just don't think right now with the way schools are performing is the time to look at weakening accountability or weakening any standards. It's not that I'm in favor of keeping kids back,” Damoose told reporters after the vote. “That's a horrible solution. But it is one more tool in the toolbox if absolutely necessary, sort of as a last resort.”

Damoose said he wants to recommend an amendment that would allow parents to direct some funds to get tutoring services.

“Because the bottom line, every time we talk about doing something new in schools, we hear that the schools are understaffed, they're underpaid, they don't have the resources to do these types of things. And so if that's the case, we can't wait till everything like that is fixed, that's gonna take a while to fix. We need to give the parents and kids who are struggling right now a solution.” 

Both Democrats and Republicans have endorsed investing more heavily in reading tutors to help struggling students catch up by third grade. 

State superintendent Michael Rice highlighted the need for tutoring and additional reading support. He said there are likely “untapped resources in our community” including faith and service organizations who are willing to help with tutoring.

“Let's eliminate the punitive, lean into the research base and evidenced-based approaches to improve literacy in the state,” Rice said. 

The Michigan Department of Education supports Polehanki’s bill. Other groups including K-12 Alliance of Michigan, the Michigan Alliance for Student Opportunity and the Michigan Association of School Boards also support the bill, while more conservative groups including the Mackinac Center for Public Policy and Great Lakes Education Project opposed it. 

Washtenaw Intermediate School District Superintendent Naomi Norman told Bridge the law has helped the state focus on early literacy but that the retention component puts a “tremendous burden on the individual child.” 

She said she would like to ensure that there are enough literacy coaches in the state so that coaches are working with teachers at the recommended ratio. Additionally, she wants to ensure there are enough supports in place for fourth and fifth grade students who are behind in reading. 

Beyond mandating retention, the law also outlines how schools are to assess students for reading skills, what interventions to provide and how to notify the parents about the child’s progress. 

Michigan has sharply expanded its investment in early literacy efforts in recent years, growing from $29.9 million in fiscal year 2018-2019 to $72.4 million in the latest budget. The state allocates money for literacy coaches, additional instruction time and teacher training to help literacy efforts.

The third grade reading law was passed in 2016, but the retention component did not go into effect until students took their standardized assessments in the 2020-2021 school year. That means the first group of students that were retained were in fall 2021.

Loopholes in the read-or-flunk law, as it came to be known, are generous. 

Michigan State University researchers found that only 545 students were actually held back this fall, even though nearly 5,700 were eligible for retention because they were a year or more behind.

Researchers also found that Black students and those from low-income families are more than twice as likely to be held back compared to their white and wealthier peers.

The House Education Committee also heard testimony Tuesday on the third grade reading law, but has not yet voted on the issue.

Minority Vice Chair Jaime Greene, R-Richmond, told Bridge she believes retention should be an “absolute last resort,” but questions the urgency of removing the retention component. 

“What’s the 911?,” she asked. “Why is it urgent? Why is this being (run) through so quickly?”

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