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Where Michigan governor candidates stand on K-12, college education

Gretchen Whitmer, Tudor Dixon
Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and GOP challenger Tudor Dixon both want to hire more tutors and teachers to help Michigan students recover from the pandemic. Beyond that, their education priorities differ immensely.
  • Gretchen Whitmer and Tudor Dixon want to invest in more tutoring and teachers, but their priorities diverge from there 
  • Whitmer wants to improve college completion rates and funding for special education and at-risk students  
  • Dixon wants to expand parents’ rights to review books and assignments and object to material they find offensive

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Republican Tudor Dixon both vow to address student learning loss and teacher recruitment if elected governor, but that’s largely where their similarities end on education policy.

Whitmer touts a K-12 school aid budget with an increase in per-pupil funding, funding for special education and at-risk students and measures that cut tuition for students seeking a post-high school degree. Dixon is campaigning largely on the platform of “parental rights.”

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Dixon wants to forbid instruction about gender and sexuality in grades kindergarten through third grade, exclude transgender girls from participating in girls sports and require schools to publicly post all teaching materials and diversity initiatives online.

Related:

Both candidates spoke recently to Bridge Michigan about their education plans. 

Their competing visions for education come at a pivotal time for Michigan students. The state had begun to make some progress on K-12 test scores after years of being in the lower rung in state rankings. But the pandemic disrupted learning for students, teachers and schools, and conservatives have attacked the governor’s COVID-19 orders and virtual learning for stretches of the pandemic.

Across the country, math and reading scores for 9-year-olds plummeted between 2020, when the pandemic began, and 2022. Fourth and eighth grade scores  from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), often referred to as the Nation’s report card, are expected to be released Monday. 

In Michigan, 41.6 percent of third grade students scored at least proficient in English language arts on the state standardized test known as M-STEP during the 2021-2022 school year. That’s a decline of 3.5 points from 2019, the last time the test was given before the pandemic. 

College enrollment rates have also declined. As Bridge reported, 54 percent of 2021 Michigan high school graduates enrolled in college last fall, down from an average of 63 percent in the three years before COVID-19.

Here’s how the candidates’ policies and actions compare: 

K-12 learning loss  

Both candidates want to invest more heavily in tutoring programs for students. As Bridge has reported, high-dosage tutoring where students receive consistent instruction in a one-on-one or small-group basis is proven to increase academic performance. But Michigan has struggled to find enough people willing to tutor. 

Whitmer proposed a $280 million tutoring program earlier this year but did not get all the money she wanted in the latest education budget negotiated with the Legislature. The budget does include $25 million for before- and after-school grants and $52 million learning loss grants. 

The Whitmer administration has called on the Legislature to fund the rest of the tutoring program she had proposed. She told Bridge in an interview she would push for more funding for tutoring. 

Dixon said she wants to direct federal COVID-19 funding to pay for 25 hours of tutoring for each student.

While schools have struggled to find enough qualified tutors in years past, Dixon told Bridge tutors would include “first and foremost” retired teachers but she has also seen programs where military veterans and former police officers become tutors. 

“We're looking for any student that is behind to make sure they get back on track and identifying those that are the furthest behind as quickly as possible to make sure we get them back on track,” she said. 

Third grade reading law 

Dixon supports a Republican-passed law that requires third grade students to repeat the grade if they score more than one grade level behind on reading. Dixon questioned why many of these struggling students were allowed to move onto fourth grade. 

Nearly 5,700 students were eligible for retention after testing this spring though it is likely that only a small portion of those students were held back because the state offers wide exemptions, including the option for parents to apply for an exemption. 

Michigan State University’s Education Policy Innovation Collaborative (EPIC) reported that only 6.7 percent of third grade students who qualified for retention in 2021 were planned to be held back. Most of the exemptions stemmed from parent requests to move their children to fourth grade.

Whitmer and many education experts have spoken out against such laws, saying that forcing students to repeat third grade creates more problems than it solves, including the social stigma that comes from retention. Whitmer and others say early intervention and intensive tutoring are better responses to help struggling readers.  

Dixon told Bridge she wants to know the reasons behind why these students are struggling to read but, ultimately, parents should make the final decision on this and other education issues involving their children.  

“It is a great concern because we can predict our prison rates based on our literacy rates. And right now, if we continue to pass 5,000 students at a time or more through third grade without that ability to read, what is the future?” 

Parent input on reading material, curriculum 

Dixon contends that public schools are indoctrinating students on social justice and gender issues and hiding key information from parents. She proposed the “Parents Right to Know Act,” which would require schools to publish textbook titles, course syllabus and diversity consultants hired by school districts, which many school districts already do. 

“A culture of secrecy and defiance has developed around the most controversial subjects,” Dixon said in a campaign video in January. “And far too many believe parents’ opinions and concerns simply aren’t valid.”

Last month, she called for a ban on “pornographic books” in school libraries and classrooms but has not specified which titles she believes met the definition of pornography. She previously criticized “All Boys Aren’t Blue: A Memoir-Manifesto,” a young-adult book by a queer and Black author reportedly removed from schools in some states because it contained descriptions of sexual acts.    

She also supports Michigan having a bill modeled after Florida’s “Parental Rights in Education” law, which critics call the “Don’t Say Gay” law. The legislation bans public school teachers from teaching about gender identity and sexual orientation in grades kindergarten through third grade. 

At a Moms for Liberty event last week in Troy, Dixon responded to an audience question about why she wouldn’t have the ban expanded to older grades.

“In many classrooms in fourth and fifth grade, we start to talk about the differences between girls and boys because that’s when they start to go through puberty. We have to be able to have those discussions with kids because not all kids are going to get that discussion at home.”

Whitmer told Bridge she supports parental input in schools but that “some of the kind of incendiary comments” made by groups accusing schools of lacking transparency are aimed at “pitting people against their school boards or against their teachers for political reasons, not actually around the important question of what the academic substance is.” 

“I do think that under Michigan law, parents have access and have control and I think that's a good thing.”

Dixon has called for the resignation of State Superintendent Michael Rice after it was reported that the Michigan Department of Education offered teacher training videos on how school staff should communicate with parents about a student’s gender identity, including instances where it may not be wise to inform parents of a child’s status if the child is not ready to share that information with parents. 

Rice and MDE defended the videos saying that schools want to partner with parents but also have an obligation to ensure students are safe. This reasoning is consistent with voluntary guidelines for the treatment of LGBTQ students set by the State Board of Education in 2016. That guidance acknowledged that there may be instances when it is not in the best interest of the students for schools to inform parents.

The Whitmer administration called on MDE to make changes to “continue bringing parents' perspectives into the work you do.”

Teacher shortage 

Michigan’s teacher shortage was a problem for the state for years before the pandemic.  

Dixon said she is looking into ways to incentivize more people to become teachers. She noted, for instance, that more people could become police officers by offering them recreation passports or hunting licenses. 

“What kind of things can we offer for our teachers?” she said. “I think that we can offer our teachers that as well because Michigan is a beautiful state. It's a great place to raise kids. We want to make sure that we have families here and a lot of our teachers are some of …the greatest learners or teachers of the land.” 

Whitmer told Bridge she would “love to see us do more to incentivize people to go into this important profession.” 

Whitmer negotiated an education budget with the Republican Legislature that includes funding for grow-your-own teacher programs, student teacher stipends and scholarships for future teachers to encourage more college students to consider teaching as a profession. 

College affordability 

Whitmer worked with the Republican-led Legislature to address college affordability by eliminating tuition for adults seeking a community college degree and, earlier this month, knocking off up to $5,500 a year for college students through the Michigan Achievement Scholarship.  

Dixon told Bridge she too is concerned about college affordability but initially declined to reveal whether she supported the Michigan Achievement Scholarship, saying she wanted to learn more about it. In a follow-up email, Dixon said she is “absolutely supportive of making college more affordable for students who choose to attend.”

But she added that, “going forward, we have to look beyond just scholarships that act as a bandaid and instead work to solve the issue directly with universities and lower the cost altogether.”

Whitmer has set a goal of increasing the rate of working age adults with a skills certificate or degree in Michigan to 60 percent by 2030. 

Dixon did not directly answer if she would support that goal as governor, but said  college should not be the only acceptable path for young people after high school. 

“I want every student to be equipped with the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed, whether that be going to college, entering the trades, or setting out on a new path. There should be no wrong path. At the end of the day, we want all Michiganders to have a good paying job that enables them to provide for their family and stay right here in the state,” she said in an email. 

Dixon’s website lays out her five education priorities but none focus on higher education. 

Whitmer campaigned for debt-free community college in 2018 and worked with Republican lawmakers to form Michigan Reconnect — the program that offers adults 25 and older free tuition to attend a local community college. 

She also established the Future for Frontliners program and recently signed into law the Michigan Achievement Scholarship which offers annual scholarships for students attending an occupational training program, community college, 4-year public university or private nonprofit university in Michigan. 

Whitmer told Bridge her next priority is “to work on (college) completion: increasing and improving our completion rates. I do think it's incumbent on policymakers to roll up our sleeves and listen to students and work with college and university leadership to improve those completion numbers.”

Nearly a quarter of Michigan students who start at a four-year public university don’t earn a certificate, associate or bachelor degree within six years. For community college students, just half will finish. 

Whitmer and the Republican Legislature also passed a $6 million grant program this year to help Michigan Reconnect students pay expenses beyond tuition, including for books, childcare, food, the internet and transportation. 

School Choice 

Dixon supports allowing Michigan’s per-pupil funding to follow the student whether they are in private, charter, traditional public or home school settings. 

But the Michigan Constitution bans public funding for private education. A federal judge recently dismissed a case challenging the ban.

There is a Betsy DeVos-backed petition to create a tax credit scholarship program that private and public school students could use. The Let MI Kids Learn program would allow people to donate to a scholarship fund and receive tax credits for their donations. Then, the scholarships would be distributed to students for learning expenses.

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The DeVos family endorsed Dixon while she was running in a crowded primary. 

Several states have a similar program including Florida. Dixon praised Florida’s education system Tuesday. The Let MI Kids Learn group missed a key deadline this summer to put the initiative on the statewide ballot. But the group is hoping the Republican legislature will still take up and pass the measure.

Whitmer vetoed legislation last year that was similar to Let MI Kids Learn, arguing that it would divert money away from public schools.

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