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The governor who wouldn’t let parents manage even a tiny portion of federal COVID aid

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Even as the public school system operates with unprecedented levels of resources, some political leaders still find it difficult to share relatively small sums of education money with families.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer recently vetoed a key item out of a school budget built on record levels of state funding. Reading scholarships were left on the chopping block, leaving struggling young readers out in the cold. 

The proposal would have used $155 million out of over $6 billion in federal COVID-19 relief. Most of the federal aid has gone to district and charter schools, with the state education department claiming the rest. The plan took away no funds currently dedicated to literacy, but would have offered $1,000 grants to parents of elementary-aged students with low reading test scores. Families could use the funds to help pay for approved after-school programs, private tutoring, books and instructional materials.

It’s a harsh truth of life after COVID-19: More students have fallen behind in key skills they will need to succeed. Federal lawmakers have poured vast sums into school systems to try to overcome this consequential learning loss. Whitmer’s veto only makes it harder for these students to recover.

Two recent analyses highlight the depth of the problem. According to the testing group NWEA, the typical student dropped 3 to 6 percentile points during last school year, with disadvantaged and lower-performing students losing even more. Separately, analysts at McKinsey & Company found that elementary students now lag about five months behind typical achievement levels.

Shortcomings of that scale call for enlisting help more broadly. Parents could have used the extra funds to supplement school interventions with other materials and services that would help their children catch up. 

Since 2018, Florida has modeled an inclusive approach to helping students read. Parents of young learners in the Sunshine State who registered low scores on a reading test could apply for $500 grants for materials and services designed to help boost their child’s literacy. But policymakers there didn’t give enough consideration to some details that would make the scholarships more useful to families. Application requirements put too great a burden on parents to show that their child was eligible. Thus, the program has struggled to attract large numbers of young learners.  

The nonprofit organization Step Up for Students has fixed some of the less helpful features of the program, but it reports that the $500 scholarship amount doesn’t allow many families to get enough help. Louisiana did better, offering $1,000 accounts to struggling readers through the Steve Carter Literacy Program. Gov. John Bel Edwards signed the bill in June, one month before his fellow Democratic governor in Michigan denied funding for a similar plan.

It isn’t clear how many Michigan families would apply for scholarships to help with reading, but evidence from other states shows the popularity of similar programs, funded by federal COVID-19 aid, to address educational needs more broadly. More than 5,000 low-income Oklahoma families snatched up $1,500 “digital wallet” grants to purchase educational curriculum, technology and supplies. And in Texas, roughly 7,000 children with disabilities benefited from family-directed online accounts, which they can use to pay for therapies and other resources.

Whitmer could have looked even closer to home for inspiration. On July 1, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine approved a budget creating $500 accounts for families to spend on an assortment of learning enrichment activities. Lawmakers in Ohio trust parents to recognize what sort of help an individual student might need after the disruptions and setbacks associated with COVID-19 school shutdowns. 

Nationwide, the K-12 system has missed the mark on academic achievement. The pandemic experience pushed many students further behind. With the system now amply funded, state leaders should not fear setting aside education dollars for families — whether for literacy, special education services, school transportation or more. Building a partnership of trust and responsibility with those who know their children best is a more promising approach than simply adding the entire federal windfall to state systems.

Whitmer did not explain her veto. No Democratic lawmaker joined an attempted override, causing the vote to fall short. But the legislature should not give up on reading scholarships. Perhaps a different dollar amount would win the governor’s support, even though the original plan represented less than 1 percent of the state’s new K-12 budget.

State leaders, no matter where they live, should rely on parents to help close the COVID-19 learning gap. Many children need help catching up, and school systems don’t have nearly all the answers. 

Ben DeGrow is director of education policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute in Midland, Mich. Follow him on Twitter @bendegrow.

Tags COVID-19 relief Gretchen Whitmer Impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on education Michigan Mike DeWine public schools

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