News from Michigan’s lame duck session

By Steven Norton, Michigan Parents for Schools
The attack on community-governed public education is in full flower in Michigan, as the “lame duck” session of the state legislature sees frantic efforts to push through a number of bills while the voting public is busy thinking about the holidays.

Some of these measures are carbon copies of similar bills pushed across the country. One measure would introduce a crude A-F “grading” of schools and districts, using a simplistic formula based solely on test scores. (The state branch of StudentsFirst has been lobbying hard for this bill. The current “color coded” rating system we have now is only a product of our flexibility waiver with USED; this bill would enshrine it in state law.) Another bill would require schools to flunk students who had not tested proficient in reading by the end of 3rd grade. Florida, the poster child for this law pushed by Jeb Bush’s organizations, accompanied it with hundreds of millions in new spending to support reading programs; the Michigan program provides not a dime.

Others are home grown: A package of bills with strong momentum would give the state of Michigan significantly broader powers to declare local school districts to be in “financial distress” and thus eligible for state intervention, takeover or dissolution. By one count, nearly half of all districts in the state could be caught up in just two of the 17 measures of “potential distress.” The irony here is especially strong – the state legislature also controls school funding and used the cover of expiring Federal stimulus dollars to cut $1 billion from education every year since FY2012, with what remains failing to keep up with inflation or rising state pension system costs. Having placed districts in financial distress, the state now wants more power to take them over as a result.

Another bill highlights the sad state of affairs in state politics generally. Our Governor and the leadership of the state House and Senate (all Republican) have been struggling for years to find a way to fund critical infrastructure improvements (mainly roads). The House leadership is so terrified of voting to raise any taxes that they proposed to fund roads by swapping the sales tax on gas for excise taxes – and thus cutting $750 million per year in school funding which comes from the state sales tax. The Speaker’s office insisted that “growth” would make up losses to schools – a projection few take seriously. If enacted, the measure would cut $500 from Michigan’s already low per-pupil funding levels. The Senate, in a surprise, voted for a straight-up tax increase, leaving schools out of it. The bills are headed to conference committee.

Michigan Parents for Schools has been helping to lead parent opposition to these measures over the past months, and we may still be able to halt or influence some of these measures. The politics of “lame duck,” however, make it difficult for citizens’ groups to see into the backroom negotiations where deals are being cut. Here is our summary of the “big four” education bills:

Finally, there has been talk over the last few weeks of a plan to take over all schools in Detroit and place them in a “portfolio” district under more-or-less state control. Detroit Public Schools has been under state control for many years now, and it has in turn handed 15 schools over to a Broad Foundation-backed disastrous experiment called the Education Achievement Authority. But the “foundation community” is concerned that there are too many poor quality charter schools in the city, generating a huge amount of excess capacity (roughly half of all school-age children in Detroit attend charter schools or transfer to other nearby districts.) Word has it that a deal has been reached to put all these schools under a single authority while protecting charter market share. In name, the new entity would likely be under the control of the Detroit mayor (who is just regaining some powers as bankruptcy ends and the state Emergency Manager leaves), but would probably be under the effective control of a state-appointed committee representing the Governor, charter schools and foundations. The elected Detroit school board, which has been locked out of any policy-making role for years, would now simply cease to exist or become a shell entity to pay off the district’s outstanding debt. Experience points to this model being used around the state if they are successful at hammering out a deal on Detroit.

Always an exciting time at our state capitol!

Posted on by Julie Woestehoff Posted in Misc

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