Tudor Dixon said she is trying to motivate the “silent Republicans” who quietly support her campaign for governor, but it’s the bold and boisterous who have been turning up at her campaign rallies.
Their shouts of “Amen!” and “That’s right!” punctuated her speech to a packed dining room last week at Marlena’s Bistro and Pizzeria in Holland, Michigan.
It was the fourth stop on her “Michigan is Open for Business” tour meant to highlight entrepreneurs who, like restaurant owner Marlena Pavlos-Hackney, were punished for failing to heed emergency closure orders as a public health precaution during the early months of the COVID pandemic.
But Dixon spent nearly a third of her 22-minute speech talking about education policy and the distrust of the public school system that she says sparked her campaign for governor.
Dixon, 45, of Norton Shores, left her family’s steel foundry five years ago to found the right-leaning Lumen Student News to counter what she has called an “anti-American vibe” in schools around the country. That effort led to her role as a conservative media commentator and, now, a candidate for governor.
“The beginning of me moving into the political world was seeing that we need to bring back American pride and make sure kids understand that we need to defend our freedoms,” Dixon said in an interview this week. “It’s about making sure our kids understand our government system, how it is the best form of government, and why.”
Dixon’s primary run was propelled by endorsements and financial contributions from the DeVos family: former Amway CEO and 2006 gubernatorial candidate Dick DeVos and former Trump administration Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. The billionaire Grand Rapids couple has been a driving force behind initiatives around the country to steer public money to private schools.
Dixon was an early proponent of the latest DeVos-backed proposal to sidestep Michigan’s constitutional ban on using public money for private schools. The voucher-like plan would allow Michiganders to contribute to scholarship accounts that could be used for private school tuition or extra educational support such as tutoring. They would then receive an equivalent tax credit.
“The state should allow educational freedom that would allow parents to not be stuck and not be beholden to a broken system,” she said, noting that Michigan’s test scores are lower than other states and falling. “We need to start funding the students, not funding the system.”
Dixon focuses agenda on parents’ rights
Since securing the GOP nomination in August, Dixon has been talking less about school choice and more about other educational culture-war issues that have flared across the country.
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She has backed conservative parents’ mission to restrict students’ access to books with sexual content. She has proposed a bill to prohibit transgender students from playing on girls’ sports teams, and another to bar teachers from talking about gender identity or sexual orientation with students under fourth grade. And she has called for state Superintendent Michael Rice’s resignation over a state training video for teachers dealing with LGBTQ students who may be suicidal.
In the video, which Rice later defended, a trainer tells teachers that they can talk to parents about a student’s suicidal thoughts without revealing that gender identity is a source of their distress if the student is not ready to share that information with family. MDE has said the training acknowledges that coming out to parents may expose some children to more harm.
But to Dixon, it all comes down to parents’ rights.
“Parents want to know exactly what’s happening in the classroom,” she told reporters after a recent campaign event. “When you see the Department of Ed has come out and said we’re going to keep secrets from parents, that’s where the distrust starts.”
Dixon’s four daughters no longer attend public schools. They enrolled in private school in fall 2020 because Dixon said she and her husband wanted them to be in classrooms, not learn remotely. By that time, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s emergency executive order closing public schools was no longer in effect, but many local districts were choosing to stick with teaching remotely as a health precaution. Dixon said her children remain in private school now because of the quality of education, particularly around civics.
She wants public school students to have that kind of instruction, too. That’s why she wants to require an elementary civics curriculum that focuses on the U.S Constitution and the roles and responsibilities of government envisioned by America’s founding fathers.
Michigan law already requires civics classes at the high school level, but it also requires that instruction “shall begin not later than the opening of the eighth grade.” Dixon wants to ensure students receive that instruction in earlier grades.
She has said she wants to prohibit the teaching of critical race theory, a college-level framework that focuses on the enduring effects of systemic racism.
Critical race theory is not typically taught in K-12 schools. But Dixon’s opposition to it still resonates with supporters like Robin Mulder, 61, a grandmother of seven who attended Dixon’s rally at Marlena’s.
“They’re teaching these kids to hate one another,” Mulder said in the parking lot where she waited more than an hour for a glimpse of Dixon. She arrived too late to get inside the restaurant but caught a shortened version of Dixon’s stump speech outside.
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Mulder supported Republican Garrett Soldano in the primary but now stands firmly behind Dixon.
“Anyone who is going to protect the rights of classroom children to learn … and protect the rights of parents to be involved in education” has her vote, Mulder said.
Dixon would subject curriculum to parental review
In an interview this week, Dixon said parents’ rights and student achievement are her top education priorities.
That’s why she wants to require teachers to post curricula, assignments, lesson plans, and books online for parents to review before the start of school each year. Many already do. A similar proposal was introduced in the Republican-led state House in February but has not moved through committee.
Dixon also wants to close loopholes in the state’s controversial read-by-grade-three law, which calls for students to be held back from fourth grade if they are more than a grade level behind in reading skills. The law provides for broad exemptions and gives superintendents enough leeway that hardly any students are actually held back. Dixon wants far fewer exceptions, so that children don’t advance to fourth grade unless they are competent readers.
Opponents of the law note that research shows retention has negative long-term effects on mental health, self esteem, and high school graduation rates. In one Harvard study, though, third-graders in Florida who were left back made significant short-term gains in reading and math and were better prepared for high school.
To resolve the state’s literacy problem and to help students recover from learning loss during the pandemic, Dixon proposes to provide 25 hours of tutoring to every student over the course of next school year, even though school districts already are having trouble finding enough tutors for existing programs.
Dixon said she would provide incentives to encourage retired teachers to return as tutors, but has not provided any details.
She also wants to provide merit pay to help retain high-quality classroom teachers.
“At the end of the day, we want more money flowing into teachers’ pocketbooks and classrooms, and less into buildings and bureaucracy,” she said.
Tracie Mauriello covers state education policy for Chalkbeat Detroit and Bridge Michigan. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.