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One Governor’s Plan to Provide Free Tuition to Essential Workers

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s proposal would offer a “tuition-free” pathway to post-secondary education to grocery store employees, delivery people and sanitation workers, as well as health care workers on the frontlines during the coronavirus pandemic.

Essential workers in Michigan who are risking their lives to perform crucial work during the coronavirus pandemic, including grocery store employees, nurses and sanitation workers, would be eligible for free college tuition under a proposal announced this week by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

The “Futures for Frontliners” plan is based on the federal GI bill, which provided free education to soldiers returning from World War II. It would provide a “tuition-free pathway to college or a technical certificate” to essential workers without a college degree. Eligible workers include a wide range of people working jobs outside their homes, such as people helping manufacture PPE, first responders and truck drivers who deliver supplies.

“Historically when Americans put their lives on the line to defend the rest of us from a foreign enemy, we have shown our gratitude by giving them educational opportunities to improve their lives,” Whitmer said during a press conference on Wednesday. “Our enemy in this instance is a virus, but our frontline workers are just as heroic, and that’s why it’s important for us to extend some gratitude, and some opportunity, once we are beyond this moment.”

Whitmer said the program would be funded from federal coronavirus relief money allocated to the state through the CARES Act, with supplementary dollars available through programs that are designed to improve workers’ skills. She did not elaborate on when the program would begin or how eligible workers would apply for assistance.

The program would require legislative approval. If enacted, it would be the first of its kind in the country. Whitmer said she hoped to work with the same bipartisan coalition that helped pass legislation last month to provide grant money for community college to adults over the age of 25 without college degrees.

But more recently Whitmer’s relationship with the Republican-controlled state legislature has not been so cordial. On Thursday, the governor issued an executive order to extend the state’s coronavirus emergency declaration after the lawmakers advanced a bill that did not renew the original declaration. The new state of emergency and state of disaster will expire on May 28.

Republican legislative leadership have said they will challenge Whitmer’s new order in court, arguing that they should have a voice in how and when to reopen the economy. Meanwhile, protesters—including some carrying firearms—gathered in the state capitol building on Thursday to rally against stay-at-home mandates. Whitmer and public health experts in Michigan have said continued restrictions are still necessary to try to contain spread of the disease.

As of Friday morning, there were 41,379 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Michigan, with 3,789 deaths.

This story was published on May 1, 2020 by Route Fifty, a digital news publication from Government Executive Media Group, which also publishes Government Executive magazine, GovExec, Nextgov and Defense One. 

This story is also part of the SoJo Exchange of COVID-19 stories from the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous reporting about responses to social problems.

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