My Take: March is reading month, and Michigan kids are in crisis

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This column originally appeared in The Holland Sentinel.

March is reading month.

Expect to see pictures in your local paper of smiling legislators reading Dr. Seuss to local kindergarten classes. Expect proclamations from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer with fancy language about how important it is to open a book. Expect politicians across the state and across the country to pretend they’re local students’ biggest boosters.

Expect none of it to matter.

Michigan’s young readers are in crisis, and too many of those politicians — particularly those with the veto pens — are literally making it worse every chance they get.

In February experts with the Education Policy Innovation Collaborative at Michigan State University released the findings of brand new research that put thousands of young faces on the crisis.

Two years after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer locked every kid in the state out of their classrooms, and while some children in districts across Michigan remain trapped behind unscientific and counterproductive mask mandates, those researchers found 52 percent of Michigan’s third grade students have experienced a “reading deficiency.”

Those numbers are worst among what the experts call “historically marginalized” student groups — Black students, Hispanic students, and students whose families struggle financially.

It shouldn’t surprise any of us that when researchers talked to teachers about the problems, they often pointed to the COVID-19 pandemic and the impact political policies had on classroom education. Locked classrooms had a particularly disastrous effect on our young readers, teachers said.

Now more than half of Michigan’s kids have experienced reading deficiencies in the last few years.

That’s absolutely heartbreaking. It’s a crisis that also didn’t have to happen — and one we should be doing a better job addressing.

Some are trying.

Parents have been sounding the alarm for years. They’re pushing for open classrooms, an end to unscientific mandates, and extra help. To their credit, over the last few months some at the state Capitol have listened.

Many consistently demanded open classrooms and an end to lockdowns and mandates. Their pleas fell on deaf ears.

Understanding the depth of the problem, Michigan’s House and Senate approved a dynamic new $155 million reading scholarship program that would have invested key dollars in our state’s public schools — funding above and beyond the already-historic high per-pupil funding levels — to provide special scholarships for students who were falling behind in reading.

The program was specially designed to ensure our schools would continue to get every dollar they already had coming — including billions in extra COVID funding — while empowering parents to invest up to $1,000 more per pupil in special reading programs for their kids.

Gov. Whitmer used her veto pen to nix the extra reading funding.

Lawmakers tried again. Republicans in the House and Senate approved a new program that would allow taxpayers to invest an extra $500 million in reading and other school supports each year. Democrats opposed the bills and again the governor vetoed them.

Now the research is in and it’s highlighting just how desperately our children need that extra support.

It’s March. It’s reading month. Your governor and your local elected officials are going to be looking for photo ops over the next few weeks and gushing about how much they value your kids.

The truth is, they’ve had chance after chance to prove it. Far too many failed the test. Our kids continue to struggle because of public policy decisions in Lansing. Parents? They won’t forget.

— Beth DeShone is executive director of the Great Lakes Education Project, a nonprofit organization that advocates for choices in public education in Michigan.