Whitmer administration chides schools chief for sitting on literacy funds
- Budget Director Jennifer Flood scolds MDE for failing to distribute $140 million for teacher literary training within 6 months
- MDE blames the delay on the need to develop grant criteria for the money and says districts can apply for funds next week
- The public scolding comes as Gov. Whitmer prepares to give her State of the State speech next week
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration is publicly calling out the Michigan Department of Education for failing to distribute funds for teacher literacy training nearly six months after the money was approved, calling the delay “unacceptable.”
State Budget Office Director Jennifer Flood sent a blunt letter to State Superintendent Michael Rice Wednesday morning urging the Michigan Department of Education to expedite distribution of $140 million in school literacy funding. The letter accuses MDE of allowing the funds to “sit idly” at the department when they are urgently needed in schools.
Only 40.9 percent of Michigan third grade students last school year were proficient or advanced on state standardized English language arts tests. Efforts to improve early reading have been a legislative priority for years.
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Whitmer signed the fiscal year 2024 education budget in July. It includes $140 million for “districts and intermediate districts to improve literacy instructional practices by investing in quality, research-based best practices, and professional learning.”
Districts are to use the funds for professional development in literacy best practices for pre-K through fifth grade teachers, administrators and instructional coaches.
MDE is responsible for developing criteria for how districts apply for these funds.
Flood referenced a letter Rice wrote the Legislature this month listing the department’s top education priorities. In the letter, Rice said “screening for the characteristics of dyslexia” and “professional development of teachers of reading and teacher candidates in the science of reading” would help improve state literacy outcomes.
“However, those very dollars that were signed into law are sitting idly in the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) instead of in the hands of those who can use them impactfully,” Flood wrote. “That is unacceptable.”
MDE spokesperson Martin Ackley told Bridge Michigan the funds have not been distributed because “the criteria for the grant were being thoroughly developed, which included input from the governor’s office.” Ackley said MDE is expected to release grant applications next week to local and intermediate school districts. In the meantime, he said school literacy training is ongoing and has not been impacted by funding delays.
“One way or the other, as reimbursement for what already exists or as funding for what’s being planned, no child’s literacy program is adversely affected,” Ackley said in a statement.
“This training is and has been ongoing. In many cases, these funds will simply reimburse districts for programming that’s already taking place, and to the extent that this is not reimbursing districts for what is taking place, it will fund what is going to take place this year and next year.”
John Severson, the executive director of the Michigan Association of Intermediate School Administrators, said intermediate districts are ready to start applying for the grants and the “sooner we get it, the better.”
Flood’s letter comes a week before Whitmer is scheduled to present her annual State of the State address. The letter is also some weeks ahead of when the governor is likely to issue a budget recommendation for fiscal year 2025.
Whitmer has moved aggressively in the past year to reshape education in a state that has received, at best, middling scores in national testing. Those changes have, at times, upset members of the State Board of Education, which oversees MDE.
Whitmer announced the creation of a new state department last year that shifts some responsibilities from MDE. The new Michigan Department of Lifelong Education, Advancement, and Potential started Dec. 1.
Rice acknowledged Whitmer’s authority to create the new department but expressed wariness concerning MiLEAP's impact on MDE's role when the new department was first announced.
Asked about the timing of the letter to MDE, Flood issued a statement Wednesday to Bridge.
“We need to do everything in our power to ensure children have the key to unlock a world of opportunities,” Flood wrote. “It’s been more than 11 months since the Governor proposed these grants in her executive budget and nearly six months since she signed the education budget into law. The time to act is now.”
Venessa Keesler, president and CEO of Launch Michigan, a nonprofit focused on re-imagining Michigan education, said she is troubled by the delay.
“I think it’s concerning that the budget was signed in July and it’s basically almost February and the school year is more than half over and the funds have not been distributed,” she said.
Keesler, former deputy superintendent at MDE, said she thinks the grant process for awarding literacy funds should be relatively straightforward since the grants aren't competitive and the department already has access to student enrollment numbers.
Mike Flanagan, former state superintendent, told Bridge he “never received anything quite like that” when he was in the job and he would like to think the budget office called before sending that letter.
Ackley, the MDE spokesperson, said Flood did in fact call Rice Wednesday morning and they had a “brief and cordial conversation,” where Flood told Rice the letter was coming.
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