When it comes to funding schools, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer says in her first year she’s focusing on getting more dollars into classrooms, particularly those that serve students who face additional challenges.
But in future years, she said, she’d like to see a more substantial overhaul to the way Michigan schools are funded.
“This budget is a first major step toward righting some of the things that are wrong in our state,” Whitmer told Chalkbeat reporters Friday during an interview in her Lansing office that covered a host of education issues. “There’s a lot of policy work to do in addition to it and beyond it. And whether it takes another year or two with a new legislature, it’s at the top of my priorities so we’re going to get it done.”
While Whitmer’s first proposed budget, which is now before the state legislature, would increase funding for students with special needs or who live in poverty, it stops well short of the kind of overhaul that has been called for by some business and education leaders.
Asked whether she would support a more sweeping school funding overhaul, Whitmer noted that being a Democratic governor in a state with a Republican-controlled legislature is “challenging” but said she would “absolutely” support that kind of substantial change.
Whitmer addressed a number of education issues, including the state’s prospects for expanding preschool to 4-year-olds, and the best fix for the crisis caused by students frequently changing schools.
She discussed what the state could do to try to attract new teachers to the profession, particularly teachers of color. She talked of the future for the Detroit Public Schools Community District, shared her thoughts on a new state superintendent, and discussed her effort to try to “get rid” of a controversial law that will next year start forcing schools to hold back third-graders who are too far behind in reading.
The highlights of her answers to some of the questions are below. To see her full responses, watch the video at the bottom.
The third-grade reading law
You’ve said you want to get rid of the third-grade reading law. Is there support in the legislature for doing that? If not, what support can the state provide to school districts for kids who might be retained?
This punitive philosophy flies in the face of science that shows kids need wraparound supports to be literate by the end of third grade … In the budget, I have written in supports for tripling the number of literacy coaches, expansion of the Great Start Readiness Program, the kind of wraparound things that help kids in the first place.
What kind of work do you see happening with the legislature to change the law?
I’ve had enough conversations with Republicans and Democrats alike to know that there is some common ground here to be had. And so I remain fairly optimistic that we’re going to be able to get it done before the effects of the punitive law are real.
Chalkbeat, with Bridge Magazine, last year did a major project on the crisis of students frequently changing schools. At the time, you said you thought maybe some additional funding for school buses could help. I didn’t see anything like that in your budget proposal. Is that coming? Or is there anything else you can do to help bring stability to schools?
When you talk about choice and how moving kids has had such an impact on their overall outcomes, we know that when we fund the schools at an equitable level we’re going to have a lot less of that, where people are moving every year looking for a better opportunity.
Certainly there are other things that perhaps we can do but I think the most central part of the solution is funding the education of our kids. You can drop the class sizes. You have better outcomes for kids. You can keep great educators and lure others to come in by offering a greater level of support for students.
On the campaign trail, you talked about making prekindergarten free for all 4-year-olds in Michigan. Can we expect a specific target, a deadline for universal pre-K in Michigan?
We absolutely have to have a concrete goal when it comes to universal pre-K. This budget that I’ve introduced takes a big step toward that … I have an $85 million increase for the Great Start Readiness Program [a state-funded pre-K program for low-income 4-year-olds], which brings the total funding to $328.9 million. That increases the income eligibility from 250 to 300 percent of the poverty level, which is an additional $5,100 kids. And we also increased the per-child funding from $7,250 to $8,500.
At this rate how long would it take to get from where we are to something that looks like universal?
I think by four years. I think by the end of the term. It’s aggressive, though. We need to see how investing these kinds of resources into the per pupil lures people to go into this profession, of education for the early child. If we can ramp up quickly, I think it’s possible.
We’ve heard a lot of rumbling in Detroit about universal pre-K systems specific to the city. Mayor Duggan has been talking a lot about this. Have you talked to him about that possibility?
Well, he reached out early on and inquired about some federal funding that he was under the impression was available from the last administration. And that was not the case.
Charter school regulation
You talked during the campaign of cracking down on for-profit charter schools but we’re still seeing issues with accountability and oversight including for some nonprofit schools. Given the current political landscape, what can you do to increase regulation of charter schools?
Accountability is important and it’s crucial in the space of for-profit charter schools and I think that it’s crucial in all education spaces. I think that this is going to be something that we’re going to have to find some common ground with the Republican legislature and I’m going to do everything I can to do that.
And where do you think that common ground might be?
Well, I mean, about outcomes for kids. I’ve talked to legislators and a lot of the members of the majority party don’t have charter schools in their areas. It’s not something that they see or are familiar with. I do know that a lot of them have had assistance from the industry and I think that’s something that we have to make sure that we do the education on. It’s not easy but I think we can do it and I’m going to spend some energy on it.
Are there specific policy proposals within charter school oversight that you’d like to see?
I think that with regard to making sure that how the dollars are spent and that they’re not going to [pay for] rent. To ensure that dollars are going into the classroom as opposed to padding the bottom line of these companies.
Do you think those rules should be different for charters than for traditional public schools?
I think that everyone has to be held to high accountability, high standards. Charter schools that aren’t producing, that are profiting off of taxpayer dollars — we don’t have to continue operating those, and I don’t think we should.
Detroit Public Schools Community District
The Detroit Public Schools expects to be out from under the oversight of the Financial Review Commission in about six months. Can the state help it address the many residual infrastructure needs given the district’s limits in borrowing money?
Certainly the issue in Detroit is acute but it is not unique. I’ve talked to Dr. Vitti quite a bit. The best thing that we can do is get a budget passed that actually invests in the education of kids. Then phase two is remedying our issues with regard to infrastructure and helping DPS make the investments in the facilities.
I’ve put $60M in this budget for hydration stations. I hate that we have to do this but that is what 40 years of neglect looks like. It’s not just our roads. It’s not just our bridges. It is the pipes underneath the ground that bring water to our schools and to our homes.
Do you think that DPSCD is ready to shed the oversight of the state right now?
I do. I think that the district’s got to be able to function and I think for a long, long time they’ve been operating not able to make their own decisions and undermined. I think there’s leadership that is ready to take it to the next step. Obviously we’re paying close attention and we want to make sure that we’re delivering results for our kids. All Michigan kids.
Many school districts — urban districts, rural districts — are really struggling right now to find enough teachers. What could be done to encourage people to go into teaching?
It is kind of the looming crisis. My mom was a public school teacher. My grandma taught in Waterford. My grandfather was a superintendent of Pontiac schools. It was a time when education was a lauded profession, when it was respected and supported in a way that it’s not currently.
The continuous debates here in Lansing and across our country have not valued the work that is done and it’s really squashed the enthusiasm for people in the profession or for others to go into it. That’s why elevating the role of teachers when it comes to policymaking is really important to showing respect for the profession … We’re going to be making some announcements shortly about how we put into practice that philosophy.
These announcements that are coming are around encouraging people to go into teaching?
Around respecting and empowering people with the expertise to help guide policy that is passed here in Lansing.
It sounds like a teacher advisory board to the legislature.
It’s something like that. We should have put this interview off a week!
The state budget
In your budget proposal, you propose raising funding for schools. Do you anticipate a more ambitious overhaul of the way we fund schools in Michigan in future budgets?
I think that that’s a very real possibility. Launch Michigan is doing some research. The business community is now focusing on education because they’re seeing what it means for their bottom line and their ability to recruit talent to our state or to build talent within our borders. There is a lot of work to do in this space.
But it starts with getting the school aid fund money back to schools and that’s why this budget is an enormous step towards addressing this 20-year problem in the making, where we haven’t kept up and not only that, but we’ve been stealing money from the school aid fund to do other things in the state budget.
So that’s why we started with this bold plan that actually puts the money where it’s supposed to go. Then the next step is focusing on getting more people to go into education, focusing on innovative ways of identifying how we support kids with different challenges to meeting those expectations. And I think that we can.
You said it’s a very real possibility but could you get something like a funding overhaul through this legislature?
Divided government is challenging. It doesn’t have to be dysfunctional. And this budget is a first major step toward righting some of the things that are wrong in our state. There’s a lot of policy work to do in addition to it and beyond it. And whether it takes another year or two with a new legislature, it’s at the top of my priorities so we’re going to get it done. I can’t tell you exactly how quickly depending on a lot of legislators who I’m still getting to know but it’s my top priority.
But an overhaul like that is something that you would like to see?
New state superintendent
The State Board of Education is hiring a new superintendent. How much influence do you expect to have on who becomes the next state superintendent and what kind of a person do you think needs to be in that role?
Michigan’s very unique in the way our system is designed and the state board makes the decision but whomever they choose sits on my cabinet. So I am going to have a number of conversations about who the right person is.
I think that the type of person we’re looking for is someone who’s not afraid to take on the challenges that are inherent to the department of education, questions contracts that have been given, rebuilds the infrastructure and the morale in a department that’s really important but that is a fraction of the size it used to be with a lot more responsibility, brings people together as well, and works with the legislature.
As I get to know more about the candidates, I‘m certainly going to take a very serious interest in who that person is.
Do you have someone that you have either recommended or would like to see in that role?
There are a few people that have put their names in that I think could do the job. I want to understand better what their vision is.
The state budget
There’s a lot education-related riding on your budget passing. Do you have a plan B?
What happens if you aren’t able to…
I wrote a real plan that solves problems. I’m not going to negotiate with myself and start putting alternative plans out there. There’s not a good alternative plan. That’s why when the Republicans come back from their vacation, this spring break that they’ve been on for the last two weeks, I anticipate they’ll introduce something.
I’ll look to see what does it mean for every issue on my education budget. What does it mean for closing the skills gap? What does it mean for cleaning up drinking water? What does it mean for fixing the damn roads?
There’s no superior plan that does the things that my budget does. I’m confident in my budget and feel that any alternative probably won’t address all the issues that we’re confronting the way that mine does but if someone has one that does, I’m open to having that conversation.