Facebook Twitter

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer during a press conference on the coronavirus in Michigan on April 17.

State of Michigan

Four things Joe Biden should know about Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s education record before he picks a vice president

The coronavirus helped put Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on the shortlist of Joe Biden’s potential running mates.

It might have helped, too, that Whitmer’s education record and rhetoric are closely aligned with the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee’s: Both want increased education funding and free universal pre-kindergarten, and both have been critical of for-profit charter schools without putting much political muscle into attacking them.

The COVID-19 crisis has hit Michigan hard — it has the fifth-most cases and third-most deaths of any state. Whitmer responded quickly with sweeping orders to close schools and restrict public movement, earning her President Trump’s ire and launching her into the national spotlight.

Whitmer is widely viewed by political pundits as a potential running mate for Biden; betting markets peg her as perhaps the third-likeliest pick after Senators Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar. 

It also doesn’t hurt that Whitmer was elected with a strong majority in Michigan in 2018, winning some counties that Trump carried two years before and giving the critical swing state its first Democratic governor in eight years. Party leaders tapped her to respond to Trump’s state of the union address in February.

If Whitmer becomes vice president, she’ll have some influence over federal school policy. Here’s what you need to know about her record on education.

🔗Whitmer pushed for more — and more equitable — school funding

Twenty-five years after Michigan’s school funding system was created, Michigan educators are in the midst of a multiyear campaign to overhaul it.

Whitmer has expressed support for a major change to school funding that would send more dollars to schools whose students need more support because they are learning English, have disabilities, or come from low-income families.

Her school budget proposals have won praise from education groups as a “first step” toward that goal, but they’ve been largely stymied by Republicans, who opposed her plans on the grounds that they would raise taxes.

Being in the political minority isn’t new for Whitmer, who was first elected to the Michigan legislature in 2001 and served as Senate minority leader from 2011 to 2015, a period when Republicans controlled the chamber. During those years, Whitmer consistently voted against Republican budget proposals.

🔗She is working toward pre-kindergarten for all

Biden wants to “provide high-quality, universal pre-kindergarten for all 3- and 4-year-olds,” according to his website.

Whitmer has worked toward similar goals in Michigan, announcing early in her term that she planned to provide free pre-K for 4-year-olds statewide by the end of her first term.

After Whitmer’s first year in office, the Republican-led legislature agreed to add $5 million to the Great Start Readiness Program, Michigan’s flagship free pre-K program. But that was far less than the $85 million Whitmer had asked for.

🔗After a tough gesture, she was unwilling to close a troubled school

School closures are among the most divisive issues in Michigan’s education politics. Hundreds of schools — virtually all in majority-black communities — have been shuttered in the last two decades due to poor academic performance and financial troubles.

As a legislator, Whitmer opposed efforts by former Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, to expand the state’s emergency management law, which had paved the way for school closures.

Within months of her inauguration, it seemed she changed her mind. She pushed to close the only high school in Benton Harbor, which is 84% African-American and one of the poorest cities in the state. Amid the district’s financial struggles, the high school’s test scores had dropped to among the worst in the state.

Republican strategists praised the move, saying her toughness would spur positive change. Critics said she had betrayed black voters by taking an excessively punitive approach.

In the end, she backed down from closure, instead asking a committee of officials representing Benton Harbor and the state government to come up with a plan for the district, which was released this month.

🔗She cut charter funding — then replaced it

Biden has spoken negatively about for-profit charter schools, but he has mostly steered clear of the issue. His campaign website doesn’t mention charter schools.

During her 2018 campaign, Whitmer also pledged to take on for-profit charter operators. Once elected, however, charter policy wasn’t a major feature of her governorship until a battle over state spending came to a head last fall.

Seeking leverage over the GOP-controlled legislature, Whitmer vetoed funding for some key Republican spending priorities, including $35 million for charter schools. Charter advocates were outraged, and they cast Whitmer as an opponent of the school choice movement. But the money was eventually restored.

Whitmer hasn’t spent much energy attacking charters since then. It’s worth noting, too, that one of her top advisors, Doug Ross, is a founder of University Prep, one of the state’s largest charter networks.