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Where they stand: Michigan candidates for governor on K-12 education

August 2018 update: Gretchen Whitmer wins Democratic primary for Michigan governor
August 2018 update: Bill Schuette wins Republican nod for Michigan governor

Perhaps no issue is as important to Michigan’s future as education, yet few issues draw such a wide variety of proposals from candidates running to be the next governor.

Michigan is in the bottom third of states in academic achievement. Michigan fourth-graders rank 35th in reading in the latest National Assessment of Academic Progress, often called “the nation’s report card.”  The state is 37th in percent of adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Today, we run the responses questions that Bridge Magazine posed on education to the governor candidates facing primary challenges: Republicans Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, Attorney General Bill Schuette, State Sen. Patrick Colbeck, and Dr. Jim Hines; Democrats Gretchen Whitmer, a former state senator, Dr. Abdul El-Sayed and businessman Shri Thanedar; and Libertarians Bill Gelineau, a title insurance company agent, and John Tatar, who owns a construction company.

Related: Where do they stand? The governor candidates on their plans for Michigan

Bridge sent the questions on education to each of the candidates. In cases in which candidates did not respond, Bridge looked at their campaign websites for answers. Democrat Thanedar and Republican Schuette did not respond to Bridge’s questions, while Republican Calley provided only a general statement about his stance on education.

1.  What state has a K-12 education system you admire, and name a specific policy in that state that Michigan should emulate.


Jim Hines: Michigan. Every state is different but I do admire the Michigan system. Unfortunately there are some places where the system does not work as well as it should. In those areas we do need to pay closer attention. Do what we can to get parents involved, give them choices and improve all the schools in the area. This means smaller class sizes at the earliest grades, reading and math coaches to assist teachers. (Hines’s education vision is outlined here.)

Patrick Colbeck: Minnesota, Texas, Florida, Virginia, Indiana.  I support Michigan being a Top Ten State for Education. A key to this is to end the Common Core experiment that Michigan began in 2010. It’s not working. States like Minnesota, Texas, Florida, Virginia, Indiana and have opted out of Common Core and outperform Michigan in 4th and 8th grade reading and math on the latest NAEP scores (Colbeck’s education plan, which also praises Massachusetts, is here.)

Brian Calley: Calley did not answer the question directly. His education plan on his campaign website says Michigan should emulate high-performing states, but does not list a state he admires nor a policy he would like to see Michigan copy.

Bill Schuette: Did not respond to Bridge’s questions. His education agenda on his campaign website does not list any states which he admires for education policies.


Abdul El-Sayed: Maryland, a state that has consistently ranked top-10 in the U.S. for educational outcomes, is also an example of a place that has made coordinated and targeted investments in supporting every aspect of a child's well-being through legislation such as Maryland HB 1139, a bill that funds student supports found in community schools by including the strategy in a revised state funding formula. Seeing as how over 50 percent of children attending U.S. public schools today live in poverty, Maryland is an excellent example of a state that has worked not just to increase outcomes for all students but to actively narrow the achievement gap between the richest and the poorest districts. Efforts such as community schools along with inclusive social policies can help support children growing up in poverty to ensure that they can succeed when they enter the classroom. (El-Sayed’s education plan can be found here.)

Shri Thanedar: Thanedar did not respond to Bridge’s questions, and his website doesn’t list any states which he admires for education policies. (Thanedar’s policy statement on education is here.)

Gretchen Whitmer: Massachusetts has done a great job of ensuring that all students have a quality public education by funding school districts equitably. They calculate how much local funding each school district can provide, then determine how much state funding is needed to supplement the remaining amount required. Michigan needs to do a better job of targeting education funding to meet the needs of every student. If we approach our education system with the goal of supporting our districts equitably, we can put every student in Michigan on a path to a good-paying job that pays them well enough so they can support their families. (Whitmer’s education plan is described here.)


Bill Gelineau: Washington. One of the key areas of concern for me is bullying.   This creates an atmosphere where students can’t focus, it can interrupt class time, and (is) overall disruptive to the learning process.   The State of Washington has adopted a comprehensive plan which has been effective. Michigan actually rates very good (and by some rates better than Washington) – but, the WA program seems to provide a more effective understanding. This is a tough subject with no easy answers, but I have worked consistently to raise awareness.

John Tatar: None. There are not states’ educational systems, K-12, that I believe, teaches correct American history and (civics) government covering the truth of the Republic(s) and the history of the US Constitution. The lack of the truth regarding the Republic(s) and the Constitution has turned this country into a “confusion” of what this American government is supposed to be, and look like.  People are confused what it means to live in a Republic and keep this government in line. Therefore we have what we have today. People that believe they have a right to demand from the government their substance, some people are angry at those who get handouts. Some people believe they have a right to everything free. It is a crazy world. (Tatar addresses education on his website here.)

2) The base per-pupil funding for Michigan public schools is $7,871. What is the proper level of per-pupil funding, and why?


Patrick Colbeck: It’s not just about money, it is how well that money is spent and how well our children are performing. My enhanced Michigan Education Savings Program that gets more money into education without burdening taxpayers for yet more money.

Brian Calley: Calley lays out plans for Michigan schools but doesn’t address per-pupil funding.

Bill Schuette: Schuette’s website doesn’t address funding levels for schools, but does call for consistent funding from year to year, so schools have more ability to plan ahead.

Jim Hines: I am not certain that there is an ideal number. I do know that we should work to equalize the amount spent per child. This was a goal of Proposal A and we are still working to get there.


Shri Thanedar: Thanedar did not respond to Bridge’s questions. On his website Thanedar says he would increase Michigan’s investment in K-12 schools, “especially for districts with higher percentages of at-risk students, allocating resources by the way students learn, not just by where they live.”

Gretchen Whitmer: According to the School Finance Research Collaborative, it takes a minimum of $9,590 to properly educate a child, but that cost doesn’t account for students in need of additional support, such as English language learners, students in special education, and students living in poverty. We’ve got to fund our schools equitably and make sure every child has the wraparound support they need to get ahead.

Abdul El-Sayed: A recent study commissioned by the School Finance Research Collaborative on the adequacy of K-12 funding found that it would require $9,590 per student, at minimum, to provide the resources needed to meet Michigan’s standards for educational achievement and career readiness – an increase of $1,959 from Michigan’s current minimum per pupil funding. However, we know that students with unique needs require even more funding--those students who need special education services, English-language learners, as well as students experiencing homelessness and/or foster care. The US average  is around $10,700 per student, with states like New York spending almost $20,000 per student. Michigan should increase per-pupil funding to at least the US average, with additional mechanisms in place to fund our most vulnerable students above and beyond what politicians deem "necessary."


Bill Gelineau: This is probably the wrong question and drives from a bias that most education issues are funding related. There are well document studies by the Heritage Foundation and others that show spending does not correspond to achievement. Several points:

a) Taxes are just as much a burden to families (and perhaps more so) than the optional cost of college expressed in Question 3. The real question here is how to we make parents better consumers of education?

b) In this vein, and regarding funding: Some (institutional) education critics have complaints about charter schools and other alternatives to public schools.    Why is it that each time a charter school is created, we have an instant waiting list? Even in a phony democracy, the PEOPLE should get what they want once in a while. Charter schools are wildly popular – indicating that we need more choices free from the education bureaucracy.

c) I’m for limiting the tax limitation effects of Proposal A. The tax “gap” between market value and taxable value is an unjustified social transfer to the higher income properties (who, by definition, are owned by higher income people). This disparity has resulted in a higher tax “load” being carried by fewer people and a demonstrable shift to the poor. This would take a Constitutional Amendment, but I believe that tax limitation should be set at no greater than $50,000 per homeowner – and should not exist at all for non-residential properties. But, before you see this as an economic windfall for schools and others – I also think we need to resurrect the millage cap that was deleted with the passage of Proposal A.

John Tatar: Not sure what is the proper cost per pupil might be at this time, but it should be equal to all schools across Michigan K-12. Each student must be given an equal chance to “make the grade”. This is something I would look into when the time comes.

3) Michigan’s social studies standards are being revised. You can read a story about some of the proposed revisions here. Do you agree with the proposed changes to social studies standards, and why?


Abdul El-Sayed: We have a responsibility to make sure that our students graduate with the historical context they need to become informed and thoughtful citizens of Michigan. That means our social studies curriculum must include a complete and truthful record of our history as Michiganders and Americans. These proposed changes, including the elimination of references to gay rights, Roe v. Wade, and climate change, are a terrifying attempt to bring the type of misinformation that has dominated conservative media into our classrooms. I strongly oppose any attempts to whitewash our history.

Shri Thanedar: Did not answer Bridge’s questions and there is nothing on his campaign website about social studies standards.

Gretchen Whitmer: No, I do not agree with the proposed changes. Our students can’t get a full understanding of American history without discussing landmark Supreme Court cases, catalysts of the Civil Rights Movement and the ideals on which our laws are built. Extreme politicians like Pat Colbeck who don’t know the first thing about educating students shouldn’t have anything to do with rewriting history lessons to fit a partisan political agenda. If we want our next generation of leaders to be able to take on the challenges we’ll face in the future, we’ve got to make sure they have a well-rounded understanding of America’s past.


Patrick Colbeck:  Of course. I took the initiative to implement neutral and accurate standards. (Editor’s note: Colbeck served on a committee that helped draft the proposed standards)

Jim Hines: I know that the state is asking people to comment on the social studies curriculum and that some of the standards have been changed but I am not familiar with the original standards and why it may or may not have been appropriate to suggest changes.

Brian Calley: Did not respond directly to this question.  

Bill Schuette: Did not respond to Bridge’s questions.


John Tatar: I do not agree with the “conservative” view, because it lacks the truth of the Republic(s) and the duty and the responsibility of each Citizen as to what role they play in maintaining the Republic. It is not about the KKK or Roe  v Wade, or gay rights, it is about INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS. It is about the 10 Amendments of the Constitution, God-given rights protected by this Constitution, it is about the responsibilities and limitations of power of the federal government and state governments, Article I, II, III of the Constitution. The “conservatives” just want power shifted from the “liberal progressives” to the “conservatives” not to bring back the Republics and put the power back into the hands of the people but rather to just change the “gang” that is in control. It is about the Republic(s) and the duties and responsibilities of the Citizens, NOT government. Their focus is totally incorrect.

Bill Gelineau: The “sanitation” of our curriculum led by Sen. Colbeck is simply wrong-headed. Social studies should be developed as a place to consider history from different perspectives – presenting a wide range of ideas about how we interpret history and social interaction. Both the Democrats and Republicans have used education as a wedge in their culture war – which most Americans find offensive.

Projecting our own fears of the future onto our children is one of the most unhealthy things we can do. I’m for a more inclusive society that isn’t fearful of others that aren’t like us. We should work to provide the earliest age-appropriate exposure to opportunities to learn about other religions, races, sexual identities and more.  

Most people understand that they can often learn from children. That’s because they don’t possess the biases of adults. With all the other issues facing students in Michigan, Mr. Colbeck would be well served to focus on more pressing problems.

4) Should third-graders be retained in grade if they are not proficient readers, and what research can you point to that backs up your position?


Jim Hines: We should do everything we can to make sure that kids can read by the third grade. Again, smaller class sizes, reading coaches and greater assistance for our teachers in the early years.

Patrick Colbeck: I support more local control when it comes to education accountability. The best people to decide whether a child should move forward or stay back are the parents, teachers and students. This shouldn’t be a formula, top-down command and control approach.

Brian Calley: Calley did not respond directly to this question. In his education plan on his campaign website, Calley addresses the importance of early-grade reading, but does not address Michigan’s read-or-flunk policy.

On his campaign website, Calley says:

The top states for literacy have something in common: a very intentional and thoughtful strategy around retraining their K-12 workforce to adopt the very best research-based instructional practices on literacy. Michigan’s efforts to improve the literacy skills of students by third grade have not, and will not, succeed without implementing this component in a robust way.

We must do whatever it takes to ensure all children become great readers, which includes inserting motivational tactics and flexible schedules. Under my plan, teachers will be free to develop individualized reading lessons based on material that actually interests the child. Time spent on different subjects will be flexible to make sure that children who need extra time to read receive extra time. Teachers who want to create a system of rewards (like extra recess) can do so. Children are not standard, and we shouldn’t teach them as though they are.

Testing is important. Tests should be geared directly toward evaluating real-time individual student performance. This will ensure student growth is occurring and interventions can be done immediately when students are falling behind – constantly evaluating and adjusting to meet the needs of each child.

Bill Schuette: The attorney general released a 10-point plan in March to boost literacy in Michigan. Parts of the plan include the appointment of a state literacy director, school reading mentors, summer reading programs and “dedicated reading centers,” which could be school libraries. The plan did not address the state’s third-grade “read-or-flunk” policy.


Abdul El-Sayed: No, mandatory retention is a misguided and wasteful policy. Here is an excerpt from a study by the Brookings Institution to provide more context: "Mandatory retention is an extremely expensive way to help struggling readers. In other states that have tried this approach, up to 20 percent of third-graders have been held back, which means that they will end up spending an additional year in school. In Michigan, only 45.2 percent of third graders scored at or above the proficiency threshold in 2016. This means that nearly 60,000 children in the state would have been subject to retention had the policy been in place last year. Given that Michigan spends over $10,000 per pupil each year, if even two-third of those students were retained, it would cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

Gretchen Whitmer: We need to ensure our students have the support they need to be literate by the end of third grade, but we also shouldn’t punish students because our leaders have failed to make public education a priority in Michigan. Studies have shown that investing in quality early childhood education is one of the best ways to encourage lifetime literacy. My “Better Schools Now” education plan will move Michigan to universal preschool, triple the number of literacy coaches in Michigan and give students the in-school wraparound support they need – like counselors, social workers, school nurses, school security, healthy meals and safe transportation. We’re going to reimagine public education and provide quality classroom learning and education that starts at birth.

Shri Thanedar: Thanedar did not respond to Bridge’s questions, and his education policy recommendations on his website do not address early-grade reading.


Bill Gelineau: Many education professionals have argued the effectiveness or usefulness of holding kids back. There are dozens of studies that have looked at retention or redshirting methods of helping kids. The National Bureau of Economic Research studies have expressed macro concerns about later-age development issues which result in dropout and criminality amongst children who are age-deferred. I would focus more resources on remedial catch-up to grade level. Reading skills are essential to prevent “tracking” kids into lower level opportunities.

John Tatar: Yes some students need to be recycled, retained in a certain grade if they cannot or have not learned how to read, write or math, basic skills.  The basic skills are essential to maintain life in a thriving Republic. The proof of this is my 31 years of teaching in the public school system. Again it goes back to the old philosophy: If you don’t make the grade you do not advance. Some children were not meant to move forward, some students need more time to achieve certain goals. Or everyone can be a teacher, a police officer, a general in the military, etc. How obscured!

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