Gretchen Whitmer, a former Democratic Senate minority leader who has cast herself as an ally of the Detroit school district, was elected governor of Michigan on Tuesday after promising to boost school funding across the state.
After leading Republican Bill Schuette consistently throughout the campaign, Whitmer’s showing was so decisive that it took only about an hour after polls closed for her to be declared the winner. Her victory was buoyed by a wave of antipathy toward President Donald Trump and a widespread feeling that Michigan’s schools and roads had foundered under a state government completely controlled by Republicans.
Whitmer could play a key role in resolving the Detroit district’s infrastructure crisis and increasing access to early childhood education. She has also promised consequences for low-performing charter schools run by for-profit companies — schools that compete with the city’s main district for teachers and students.
To make good on her education platform, Whitmer will likely need the support of some members of the Republican party. By the time she declared victory, it was still too early to tell whether Democrats would also make gains in a state legislature that has been solidly Republican in recent years.
On the campaign trail, Whitmer often returned to the fact that Michigan students are lagging behind their peers on several national measures. She offered solutions, including increasing access to pre-K to two free years, but has not been specific on how she plans to pay for some of these efforts.
Whitmer, a Lansing native, has undergraduate and law degrees from Michigan State University. She was in the state legislature for 10 years and has served as a county prosecutor. She lives in East Lansing with her husband and five children.
School leaders in Detroit took to Twitter to celebrate Whitmer’s victory:
For more details on Whitmer’s education positions, scroll down for highlights from our two interviews with her this year, or watch a video of a recent interview here.
Chalkbeat: Do you think Michigan schools have the resources they need to succeed? Do you think they are prepared to serve all students including special needs students? And do you think they are equitably funded?
Whitmer: No and no. We’ve got to do better by our children and that means not punishing third graders who aren’t literate. It means tripling the number of literacy coaches. Having universal early childhood education so every child coming into kindergarten is ready to learn. And giving our heroes who go into public education the support that they need. But it also includes a weighted foundation allowance, which I think goes to the heart of part two of the question. Study after study shows that kids in high-poverty districts cost more to educate. And we have to make a greater investment. That means more nurses and social workers, smaller class sizes, literacy coaches. Our historical funding in Michigan, we’ve got wealthy districts and we’ve got high-poverty districts. I don’t want to just move resources from one district to another. I want to make a greater investment in our kids’ schools by stopping the raids on the school aid fund. Just doing that alone, you could get about $700 million annually back into our education system.
Given that test scores are often driven by socioeconomic and other factors, do you think the state’s current accountability system gives parents a fair and accurate measure of how schools are doing? Do you think the state should use that accountability system to make school closure decisions?
There’s no question that we have to measure to see what’s working and what’s not working. The standardized tests that our kids are taking and taking and taking aren’t being used to really make tweaks in the curriculum or in the teaching or in the investment in our schools. It’s being used as a tool of punishment.
The thought that you punish families by closing down the option that they have, that that’s going to somehow produce a better result is completely backward thinking. When you look at states that are turning around districts, they put more resources in. They don’t abandon families. They don’t make it harder for them to find education for their children.
The Detroit Public Schools Community District, the largest district in the state, recently reported that it needs about $500 million to upgrade its facilities but the state won’t let the district borrow money for renovations like other districts can. What help, if any, should Lansing provide?
When I was in the legislature, I introduced year after year a bill to open up the purposes for which sinking funds can be used. It’s such a limited purpose and there are so many districts that have balances. Now I don’t know what Detroit public schools’ circumstances are on that front in particular. So I don’t know if this would have helped alleviate that. But I’ve been throwing solutions on the table for a long time. I’ve been in the minority and unable to get them signed into law, but that will change after this election. I believe we’ve got to give districts some flexibility to raise the revenue if they can. But it’s on the state to ensure that every child has a good facility in which to learn. No child picks what family, what school district, what zip code they’re born into. But every one of them deserves a great education to level the playing field.
Do you think Michigan needs to make any changes to laws regarding how charter schools are governed?
I do. Michigan is an outlier when you look at other states in the nation that have charter schools. So many of ours are for profit. There are not enough accountability measurements written into the law. The whole theory behind charter schools was that they would be untethered to the traditional oversights and so they would be able to innovate and have better results. But after decades of this, we now have seen they don’t necessarily have better results. Sure, some have had some success, but as a general rule they’re on par with public schools and so we need to have accountability and charters that aren’t working shouldn’t be siphoning taxpayer dollars out of our public schools and they should not be in existence.
What can the state do about the high cost of child care and lack of preschool options for young children?
One of the things that we have proposed is drawing down more resources from the federal government. Right now we could be giving tax breaks to families for childcare and we’re not. We could expand early childhood education, which starting our kids off as 4-year-olds would help alleviate some of that.
Do you believe the cost of higher education is prohibitive? If so, how will you reduce the cost of higher education?
It is. When I went to Michigan State University, the taxpayers I think picked up about 70 percent of the cost of my education. And it was on me and my family to come up with the rest. Now it’s just about flip-flopped. And we’ve had this mindset in the last 20 years that the only way to a career, an honorable career that you can make a good living in, is through a four-year degree. And so we’ve kind of pushed this mantra out there and stigmatized other paths and now we’re paying a price for it.
One of the pieces of my plan is the My Opportunities scholarship, which is a path to a debt-free, two-year degree for every Michigander. We can make that kind of investment toward bringing down the cost of a four-year degree and also opening up paths into the skilled trades. It’s actually not enormously expensive. It’s about $100 million a year. When you’ve got a $50 billion budget, $100 million is a small piece and I think we would find fantastic return on that kind of an investment.
An investigation by Chalkbeat and Bridge found that roughly one in three Detroit elementary school students change schools every year, often because parents are looking for better options. Most of the students who change schools did not move to a different zip code. Is there anything State Government could do to reduce the negative impact of student churn?
They wouldn’t keep looking if they had great schools and good choices. People want to talk about education choices as though that in and of itself is the solution. But there’s no real choice if you don’t have any good options, right? And choice is only a real choice if you have the means and the resources to pursue different school districts. I say let’s stop that mindset. Let’s raise up our school districts. Let’s make sure that we make the investment, that we hold schools accountable, that we shut down schools, particularly, you know, for-profit charter schools that are not delivering good results. We do have to have a Detroit- specific strategy. The governor and his Republican legislature failed at giving some real comprehensive oversight to what’s happening in the city of Detroit. I want to be a partner to Dr. Vitti, to Mayor Duggan, to Detroit families to make sure that we don’t have schools that are just putting money in their pocket and not delivering good results for our kids.