Mich. House Seeks Accord on Finance Measure
As the Michigan legislature struggles to approve a revamped state education system by year's end, members of the House were working last week to pass their version of sweeping school-finance and -reform bills.
If lawmakers are unable to reach agreement on the wide-ranging bills by the close of this year's session, they will need a two-thirds majority next year to enact the laws in time to replace the property-tax system for funding education that state leaders decided to abandon last summer.
Toward that end, House lawmakers were involved in negotiations and floor debates last week meant to push their program through.
The House Taxation Committee passed a plan that would implement a new funding system based on an increase in income taxes, a 16 mill statewide property tax on homes and a 20 mill tax on business property, and an increase in the single-business tax.
The business tax would remain at its current level, and the income and property taxes would take smaller jumps if residents voted to approve a 2 cent increase in the state sales tax.
The vote on the sales-tax increase, which would require a constitutional amendment, was one topic of last-minute House negotiations last week, as Republicans and Democrats also differed over school-choice language included in the tax bill.
Fallback Fiscal Plan
While the new finance scheme so far has not won any official praise, education groups and Gov. John Engler welcomed the House effort to include a fallback plan if voters reject a sales-tax increase.
"It is not like everybody is jumping on board, but we have not been discouraged,'' said Sarah Hubbard, an aide to Rep. Willis Bullard Jr., the chairman of the tax panel. "Everybody is certainly still looking out for their own interests.''
Under the House finance plan, every student would receive $5,000 in per-pupil funding, with additional money targeted to low-income families.
Districts spending between $5,000 and $6,500 per student would receive state aid to continue spending at their current level, plus an increase of at least 3 percent in the first year. In districts now spending more than $6,500 per child, local taxes could be raised to equal or slightly exceed current spending.
The plan allows about $500 million more in education aid, pushing total school spending to just over $10 billion, officials said.
The House plan also would allow all districts--not only the most wealthy as in a proposal put forward by Governor Engler earlier this fall--to go to local voters to raise up to 4 mills in property taxes to beef up education programs. Some districts have been critical of that effort, however, because it relies on the approval of an entire intermediate school district, not just voters within individual districts.
By last week 12 tax bills had been voted out of committee, although the constitutional amendment had not. Officials said they would like to schedule a special election on the sales tax for mid-February.
Teacher Development Stressed
In the House education committee, a series of school-reform bills were also making progress last week. A charter-schools plan allowing districts, universities, and community colleges to organize or approve independent, publicly funded schools won House approval.
Lawmakers went to the floor last week with another bill, which they said could significantly refocus the efforts of state educators.
The bill would increase state spending on professional development 10 times, to $20 million annually. New teachers for their first three years would be slated for 15 days of professional development, assigned a master teacher as a mentor, and be given a specified plan for improving teaching and management skills. Teachers with more than three years' experience would receive 10 days of professional development, with all of the activities tied to the state's core curriculum.
Rep. William R. Bryant Jr., the Republican co-chairman of the education panel, contended that another provision in the bill, making a seemingly small change in wording in current law, could also have a resounding impact on the schools. The measure would require schools to "provide''--rather than just "make available,'' as under current law--all students with the ingredients of the core curriculum.
"That may have more significance than anything we do,'' Mr. Bryant said. "Instead of meaning that they have to have a course book available, districts would have to teach the courses and provide the assistance students need to pass the state-endorsed diploma test.''
House leaders' furious pace last week matched the previous flurry of legislation produced by the Senate, which is expected by this week to begin working in conference with the House on consensus bills. (See Education Week, Nov. 10, 1993.)
Aides to the Governor last week called the developments in the House, in particular the emerging finance plan, a good sign that the state might be able to resolve its self-imposed crisis by the end of the year. Then the voters would have the opportunity to decide how best to pay for the new system.