Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s proposed education budget was pushed out of the limelight Thursday after she made a seemingly offhand comment that reignited the debate over Michigan’s controversial third-grade reading law.

As a candidate, Whitmer was frequently critical of the law, which starting next year will require schools to hold back third-graders if their reading skills fall below a still-undetermined level. But she stopped short of calling for the law to be repealed.

She took a step further on Wednesday, saying in a public appearance that she wanted to “get rid of” the law.

The comment came as leaders of the Republican-controlled state legislature forcefully announced their opposition to Whitmer’s budget proposal, which calls for a hefty 45-cent increase to the statewide gas tax in order to pay for massive road repairs and a $507-million funding boost for Michigan’s ailing K-12 schools. By renewing debate over a law that Republicans largely support, the comment threatened to further fuel partisan tensions in the newly divided statehouse.

In a statement on Thursday, a spokeswoman for Whitmer turned attention back to her budget proposal.

“Retention has negative impacts on kids,” Tiffany Brown said in a text message. “We need meaningful early intervention, as supported with the governor’s budget, for example, to triple the number of literacy coaches to make sure teachers have the support they need to meet kids’ needs.  The goal is to support kids to make sure they are successful and not just penalize them.”

The offices of House speaker Lee Chatfield and three Republican members of the house education committee did not immediately offer comment. Nor did the two Republican members of the state board of education.

With Republicans in control of the Michigan legislature, it is difficult to see a political path toward rolling back the third-grade reading law. The Great Lakes Education Project, a conservative think tank founded by U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos that wields powerful influence among the state’s Republican lawmakers, sharply rebuked the idea. In a press release, the group called it “a slap in the face of Michigan children and their teachers.”

Supporters of the law point out that it has forced the state to reckon with its backsliding reading scores. Gubernatorial candidates from both parties, Whitmer included, talked relentlessly about the importance of teaching literacy to children as early as possible. Whitmer’s budget proposal singles out literacy as a critical issue, setting aside $24 million to triple the number of dedicated reading coaches in schools.

But many educators were furious when the law was passed in 2016, arguing that students from low-income families and English language learners are more likely to be held back. Opponents pointed out that retaining students is expensive — putting taxpayers on the hook for an additional year of school — and can be emotionally and academically damaging.

Democratic legislators and educators were quick to endorse the elimination of the law:

 

What’s more, the state has no idea how many students could be forced to repeat a grade.

Education officials haven’t yet decided what score on a standardized test would constitute failure, making it impossible to say how many students could be held back. But the numbers could be huge, especially in communities with low reading scores.

Kyle Guerrant, a deputy superintendent with Michigan’s education department, took note of Whitmer’s comments.

In Detroit’s main district, roughly 1 in 10 third-graders passed the state’s M-STEP reading exam last year. Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of the Detroit school district, has said the potential impact of the reading law in the city is “terrifying.” In her comments on Wednesday, Whitmer called the law “destructive.”

It remains to be seen what will actually happen when the law goes into effect during the summer of 2020. Parents and superintendents have some ability to exempt students from the law, raising the possibility that only a small fraction of slower readers will be held back.

Judy Pritchett, a Democratic member of the state board, welcomed Whitmer’s call for repeal.

“We know by research that it doesn’t work,” she said. “I think there are certainly other ways in which to support children in reading.”