Whitmer, Dixon present voters with diverging visions for Michigan's schools

Lansing — Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's campaign says "historic progress" has been made toward improving K-12 education over her first term in office, but Republican challenger Tudor Dixon contends the state's schools have "lost their way."

As absentee ballots became available Thursday across Michigan, 40 days before Election Day, Dixon has been attempting to make her plans to overhaul education policies the centerpiece of her bid to unseat Whitmer.

While polls have shown many voters this year are focused on issues such as abortion and the economy, Dixon's campaign could hinge on her success or failure at putting schools in the spotlight. Whitmer has a significant fundraising advantage over Dixon and has been using the money to tout her record on education. Whitmer won her first term by 9 percentage points in 2018.

The GOP nominee is advocating for changing the state Constitution to make the state superintendent accountable to the governor, allowing funding to follow students to private schools and giving parents greater influence over curriculum.

"We believe schools need to get back to the basics of teaching kids how to write, read and do math," Dixon said at a Tuesday press conference outside the Capitol building. "Michigan's education system is failing too many kids on those core tasks."

In making her case, Dixon has cited declining high school graduation rates and state test scores. Michigan's reading scores have dropped in recent years amid the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. Data from the 2022 Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress, known as M-STEP, revealed statewide that 41.6% of third-graders passed the state's English language arts test, compared with 42.8% last year and 45.1% in 2019.

A report this year from the advocacy group The Education Trust-Midwest said Michigan's education system remained in "a perennial rut." According to 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress assessments, the latest available, Michigan fourth-graders ranked 32nd nationally in reading and 42nd nationally in mathematics. The Education Trust-Midwest report noted that Michigan’s NAEP performance in fourth-grade reading ― considered a significant predicator of future academic success ― remained "largely stagnant" from 2003 to 2019, "while leading education states made significant progress."

Whitmer and her supporters have pointed to their own statistics: record spending in K-12 education and expanded early learning. The new Michigan budget, which Whitmer signed in July, increases per-pupil funding for public schools to $9,150, the highest number in state history and up $450 from the previous year.

“Gov. Whitmer has brought people together to make historic progress improving K-12 education and is doubling down to tackle unfinished learning by supporting students with free tutoring and bolstered mental health resources," said Maeve Coyle, spokeswoman for Whitmer's reelection bid.

Whitmer's supporters have accused Dixon of trumpeting the policies of former U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a Republican donor from west Michigan who's been helping to finance Dixon's bid for governor. The governor is backed by the state's teachers unions, the Michigan Education Association and AFT-Michigan.

Challenging Whitmer's education record

Dixon, a political commentator and businesswoman from Norton Shores, has held a series of press conferences on education in recent weeks.

One of the reasons is likely that independent voters appear more willing to consider holding Whitmer accountable on education and learning loss than they do on nationalized issues, such as inflation, said John Sellek, founder of the Michigan-based consulting firm Harbor Strategic Public Affairs.

"Whitmer's team has been working to solidify that weakness for months, knowing these attacks were coming but is only starting to take incoming fire recently as the Dixon campaign turns up the temperature with press conferences," Sellek said.

The Detroit News asked the campaigns of both Dixon and Whitmer about their plans for improving education in the state, which has nearly 900 traditional public school districts and charter school academies.

Whitmer's team focused heavily on what the governor has done over her first term in office, highlighting Sept. 1 findings from the Michigan Department of Education, which said a majority of Michigan school districts showed improvement in their spring 2022 statewide test results over the previous year's results.

In the same announcement, Michigan state Superintendent Michael Rice credited Whitmer and the GOP-controlled Legislature with negotiating a budget that "will help Michigan students and schools improve at this challenging time."

Whitmer has worked to expand funding for before-school and after-school learning programs and secured money for tuition assistance for future educators, according to her campaign. She has tripled the number of reading coaches and delivered millions of dollars to support students with one-on-one assistance, according to her campaign.

The efforts to increase funding are crucial to improving education in Michigan, said state Sen. Dayna Polehanki, a Democrat from Livonia and a former teacher. Polehanki said recruiting the best teachers, improving early education, hiring more tutors and attending to students' mental health would all help improve the state's test scores.

“I think Gov. Whitmer is on the right track,” Polehanki said.

Dixon: Back to the basics

Meanwhile, Dixon has promoted returning schools to "the basics" of teaching math and reading, and she's criticized decisions in 2020 and 2021 that allowed schools to offer online-only education for months into the COVID-19 pandemic.

After the coronavirus was first detected in Michigan, Whitmer closed K-12 buildings in March 2020 at the end of the 2019-20 school year. For the 2020-21 year, Whitmer reached a deal with GOP lawmakers to generally allow districts to decide for themselves whether to have in-person instruction.

Some districts used the policy to remain online-only. In January 2021, Whitmer began publicly pressuring them to reopen their doors by March 1.

In a statement, Dixon said "years of schooling" had been stolen from students in Michigan under Whitmer's leadership.

Dixon's campaign said if elected, she would distribute "tutoring certificates," funding 25 hours of one-on-one or small group tutoring in reading and math for every Michigan student. She would also require districts to put all curriculum and teaching materials online for parents to see and ban school personnel from talking to kindergarten through third-grade children about "sex and gender theory" behind parents' backs.

Fundamental changes

The latter policy would be modeled after a law signed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Dixon said. Critics have named that standard "Don't Say Gay."

"Parents deserve to know what their child's school is focused on and that that's the right stuff," Dixon said during a press conference on Tuesday.

Whitmer's chief operating officer Tricia Foster sent a letter to Rice earlier this month encouraging him to "continue bringing parents' perspectives" into his work. And on Sept. 19, Whitmer announced the members of a "Michigan Parents’ Council," an advisory group she established.

In the past, plans crafted in Lansing that attempt to determine what's taught in classrooms across the state have drawn criticism from some education advocates. Peter Spadafore, executive director of the Middle Cities Education Association, which advocates on behalf of a group of urban school districts, said he supports parental input, but decisions are best made locally.

“Any proposal that would dictate very specifically what should or should not be taught in classrooms, at the macro level, is problematic,” Spadafore said.

Dixon has also advanced more sweeping changes to Michigan's education system, which would require altering the state's Constitution. She has argued the state's superintendent, who helps set school policy, should answer directly to the governor. Currently, that person is hired by an elected State Board of Education, which is tasked with supervising public education.

"I want to be responsible for the outcomes," Dixon said recently.

The education policy organization Launch Michigan, a partnership of business, education, labor, philanthropy and civic leaders, advocated in June for having the governor appoint the state superintendent.

"This will help reduce the number of conflicting education policy agendas at play, increase voter accountability for educational outcomes and ensure solid leadership of the Michigan Department of Education," said Launch Michigan's report, which described itself as "a 21st-century framework for transformation."

Dixon called for the resignation of Rice on Sept. 20, contending a state training session on working with LGBTQ students promoted hiding information from parents.

Tom McMillin, one of two Republican members of the State Board of Education, said he agreed with the frustration Dixon had with Rice, but McMillin said he was against having the superintendent answer directly to the governor because it would centralize additional power with the governor.

Outside influence?

Dixon's campaign website promotes instituting "education savings accounts" that would allow families to use the state's per-pupil funding amount on "public, private, charter, virtual or homeschooling options.‍"

The Michigan Constitution currently bans providing payments, credits or subsidies to nonpublic schools "to support the attendance of any student." But DeVos, who served as education secretary under former President Donald Trump, has long championed the idea of allowing money to follow students to schools they want to attend.

The DeVos family endorsed Dixon's bid for governor in May. DeVos family members have given $1 million to Michigan Families United, a super political action committee (PAC) that's been helping Dixon, according to campaign finance disclosures.

In TV ads, the Democratic Governors Association has accused Dixon of being "all in" on DeVos plans. Likewise, Dixon's proposals for schools appeared to reflect DeVos's ideas, argued Polehanki, the Democratic lawmaker.

“All of this is infused with religion," Polehanki said. "And it’s a whole long thread, but I think Ms. DeVos has been consistent in her wish to get more kids into private and religious schools.”

But McMillin, the Republican member of the State Board of Education, argued Dixon's plans showed she was more interested in trusting parents.

"Gretchen cares more about making sure her power brokers, like the MEA (Michigan Education Association, a union that represents teachers) and the administrators are satisfied," McMillin said.

The PAC of the Michigan Education Association, which says it represents about 120,000 educators, has given $71,500, the maximum allowed, to Whitmer's reelection campaign.

Asked about DeVos influence during an interview on WOOD-TV's "To The Point," Dixon said she agrees "with educational freedom," something, she said, DeVos has worked for during her entire career.