MICHIGAN—Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Friday signed a bill to repeal a controversial state law which for years has punished Michigan students who fall behind more than one grade level in reading and writing by forcing them to repeat the third grade.
Senate Bill 12—which passed largely along party lines 57-51 in the House last week—eliminates the punitive portions of the so-called third grade reading law, which was passed under Republican leadership in 2016.
Public education advocates have said the statute did more harm than good. Lawmakers have also since characterized the old law as “arbitrary and punitive.”
“Today, we are taking action to put power back into parents’ hands so they can work with their child’s teachers and make decisions that are best for their family,” Whitmer said in a statement. “Getting this done will offer parents more flexibility and ensure educators can focus on doing what they do best—helping students reach their full potential.”
In a statement issued after Whitmer signed the bill on Friday, State Rep. Nate Shannon (D-Sterling Heights) said the law only served as “a threat hanging over our students’ heads,” and that holding kids back reinforced achievement gaps and racial inequality, especially in low-income communities.
Research from Michigan State University’s Education Policy Innovation Collaborative shows that Black and low-income students were disproportionately impacted by the 2016 third-grade retention rules—namely by revealing that Black students who fell behind in reading were more than twice as likely to be held back compared to white students.
William Weir, a retired middle school teacher with 482 Forward, said the racial disparities in Michigan’s public schools alone were a “clear indicator” that the law needed to be changed.
“Parents and educators know that it’s critical that students are able to read by third grade. We also know that holding them back a grade is a decision best made by the teacher and parents together—not the government,” Weir said in a statement.
Shannon called on lawmakers to be “proactive in our approach to kids and literacy,” instead of being reactive.
“We could use the resources that are spent on retaining students and put that towards more literacy coaches, reading intervention specialists, and provide afterschool and summer school programs to address the issue,” he said.
Although students who fall behind in reading will no longer be forced to repeat third grade, state law still requires schools to offer additional assistance and resources to help them.
“Getting held back while your friends move on to the next grade can be a traumatic experience—and, if not done for the right reasons, the negative effects can last a lifetime,” said Michigan Education Association President Paula Herbart. “Instead of punishing children who struggle, we must provide them with the positive support they need to achieve their full potential.
Officials with other education groups across Michigan have also lauded the law’s repeal.
Robert McCann, executive director of the K-12 Alliance of Michigan, said the repeal will put the decisions of what is best for children back into the hands of parents and teachers.
“There are no one-size-fits-all solutions to educating kids, and the more we can do to instead give schools the resources to provide individualized programs to support learning, the more we will be successful in helping kids read,” McCann said in a statement after the House vote.
Peter Spadafore, executive director of the Michigan Alliance for Student Opportunity, also echoed McCann’s remarks, noting that decisions to hold back students should only be made by parents, teachers and local education professionals—not “heavy-handed” laws written by politicians.
“It’s a great day for Michigan students, parents, and teachers as the harmful red-tape of Michigan’s failed third grade retention law is finally pulled back,” he said in a statement. “Michigan’s educators can now focus on ensuring our students have the best environment to excel in without burdensome regulations holding back student achievement.”
Joanne Galloway, executive director of the Center for Change Northern Michigan in St. Ignace had testified to the Senate Education Committee to urge support for the repeal.
“If retaining a child in 3rd grade helped get students to improve their reading levels then educators would have been using that option as standard practice, but that just isn’t the case,” she said in a statement after the House vote. “Every educator knows that individualized support is the best way to ensure students catch up on their learning goals.”
Since taking office in 2019, Whitmer has worked with legislators to invest in public education without raising taxes for four straight years. She also established the Michigan Parent’s Council last year to ensure parents have input in policy making decisions at local school districts.
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