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Who has been behind Michigan’s 3rd Grade Reading Retention Policy?

February 3, 2020

In 2016, the Michigan Legislature passed a law that requires schools to identify learners who are struggling with reading and writing and to provide additional help. The law states that third graders may repeat third grade if they are more than one grade level behind beginning with the 2019-2020 school year.

This law has been controversial ever since it was introduced and during Gov. Whitmer’s State of the State address last Wednesday, she proposed an alternative to the 3rd Grade Reading Law passed in 2016. Her plan is to have the State of Michigan work with foundations across the state to invest in early child literacy and to help families understand the retention mandate. 

Background on the 3rd Grade Reading Law and who has been pushing it

Before the 3rd Grade Reading law was introduced with House Bill 4822, there were numerous entities pushing for the this type of policy. At the state level groups like the DeVos-created Great Lakes Education Project and the far right think tank, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, were zealously in favor of the 3rd grade reading law. On the local level, the West Michigan Policy Forum has been the primary champion.

HB 4822 was introduced in 2015 by then Rep. Amanda Price, who was then replaced by Rep. Jim Lilly. Other major backers of this legislation were Lisa Lyons, Lee Chatfield, Jim Runestad and Daniela Garcia. Most of these politicians have received major funding from the DeVos family, like Lee Chatfield, while others have moved on to the Michigan Senate, and in the case of Daniela Garcia, she is now a staff person at the Department of Education, working for Betsy DeVos

The vote on HB 4822, was pretty much along partisan lines, with 54 Republicans and 3 Democrats voting for the legislation. After a significant amount of deliberation, then-Gov. Snyder approved the legislation in October of 2016, nearly a year after it was introduced. For a substantial articulation of what this law means, read the analysis provided by the House and Senate Education Committees

The Michigan Education Association opposed this legislation, mostly on the grounds that it could result in, “large numbers of children being held back from advancing to fourth grade—especially in high-poverty and urban areas where proficiency rates were lower than elsewhere.” Below are provisions in the new reading law.

There are currently 19 states that have adopted the same 3rd grade reading retention policies, which began in 1998, when California adopted a 3rd Grade Reading Retention policy. According to an NPR report late last year, forcing children to repeat a grade is stigmatizing and can damage their self-esteem. Multiple studies have found that flunking a grade makes it much more likely students will fail to graduate from high school. Some parents and educators have organized against mandatory retention and advocate for children to sit out high-stakes exams. A group of parents in Florida unsuccessfully challenged the policy in court

On the blog Education Dive, writer Naaz Modan writes: 

Across the board, retention can increase the likelihood of a student dropping out of school, and many educators and organizations have criticized the growing policies for this reason. 

The National Council of Teachers of English says that the laws are “ill-advised” and perpetuate a “cycle of punishment” that disproportionately affects students of color, impoverished children, English language learners and special needs students. 

And Kathy N. Headley, the president of the Board of Directors for the International Literacy Association, pointed out that the retention of 3rd graders without providing the support necessary for educators and students is meaningless.

Last week, Bridge Magazine posted a story about Gov. Whitmer’s attempt to challenge the 3rd grade reading law. The first source cited in the Bridge article, was Michael Jandernoa, who is a board member of the West Michigan Policy Forum, one of the groups that lobbied hard to get it pass in Michigan. Jandernoa states:

“The teachers and schools have been totally unable to help these kids who are behind in third grade graduate in high school and go on and get any kind of trade job or [attend] community college, or any consideration of a four-year university.”

Jandernoa and the West Michigan Policy Forum are very clear about their anti-teacher union positions, their advocacy for Charter and private education, along with their general view that students are nothing more than talent to be developed to fill employer needs.

The Grand Rapids Public Schools was one of the first districts in the state to push for this legislation when it was first introduced, according to a recent WZZM 13 story. This begs the question as to why the GRPS was so eager to adopt the 3rd Grade Reading Retention policy, a policy that was primarily promoted by the Great Lakes Education Project, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy and the West Michigan Policy Forum.

Lastly, so much of the issues that are raised with the 3rd Grade Reading retention policy have to do with funding and resources for education. The public schools are grossly underfunded in this state, with large funding disparities with districts that have a high percentage of students of color. In addition to low school funding, there is also the issue of teachers being paid a justice salary and having access to classroom resources. This is not to suggest that the problem is all about money, but we know that funding for schools when compared to funding for prisons demonstrates where our priorities are.

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