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Lawmakers in Mich. Agree To Seek Voter O.K. of Tax Increase

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Michigan lawmakers have agreed to replace the property-tax-based school-funding system they abruptly abolished last summer by giving state voters a choice between higher sales or income taxes.

Working under heavy pressure in an overnight session that went well into Christmas Eve, the legislature last month approved a series of funding and reform bills that will overhaul one of the nation's largest state school systems.

"It was the most miserable experience I've ever had, but we're very pleased to have it done,'' said John Truscott, a spokesman for Gov. John Engler, who pushed lawmakers to finish their work by year's end.

The legislature was able to agree on a new school-finance program that relies on a sales-tax increase, which will go before the voters, as well as a fallback plan calling for an income-tax hike if the proposal is rejected. In addition, lawmakers approved a host of reforms that will establish a core curriculum, expand site-based management, and allow local school boards to hire superintendents who are not certified.

"There is a lot of meritorious stuff there,'' said Justin King, the exective director of the Michigan Association of School Boards. "I don't know if this is a good way of doing things, but they put themselves under the gun and we commend them for coming up with something.''

A week before Christmas, prospects appeared dim for the package as divisions between the House and Senate versions grew more pronounced. But when Mr. Engler warned that he would keep lawmakers in session through New Year's Eve if necessary, the logjam over taxation eased.

Under the plan backed by the Governor, which will go to the voters on March 15, the sales tax would rise from 4 cents to 6 cents, a "keno'' lottery game would be established, and a 6 mill property tax would be assessed on homes throughout the state. Previously, the average property-tax rate in the state was 37 mills.

The ballot proposal also would slightly cut personal-income taxes, while raising taxes on commercial property and cigarettes.

If that proposal is defeated, the law would automatically impose a plan relying on higher income taxes, a 12 mill property tax on homes, and higher property, business, and cigarette taxes.

Under either scheme, school aid will rise to $5,000 per pupil in every district within five years, with low-spending districts being boosted to $4,200 per child the first year.

Districts spending between $4,200 and $6,500 will be guaranteed their current spending level, plus an annual per-pupil increase ranging from $160 to $260. In districts spending more than $6,500, the law will allow a local property-tax increase to meet current spending plus $160 per child.

Given the higher state funding, districts will become responsible for paying their own retirement costs, which are now covered by the state. The state will continue to pay for Social Security.

Open Enrollment Dropped

The package of two dozen bills signed by Mr. Engler requires the state board of education to adopt a core curriculum by September.

By 1997, all schools will be required to offer the courses in mathematics, science, social studies, and communication arts. Students not reading at grade level in the 4th and 7th grades will be allowed to progress, but will receive special tutoring.

In addition, the school year will be lengthened to 1,080 hours of classroom instruction by 2000, up from the current 900. Districts will decide whether to have longer days or a longer school year.

An ambitious statewide open-enrollment plan proposed by Mr. Engler in October was lost in the final version. But lawmakers agreed with the Governor by approving a charter-schools program under which certified teachers, a public school, or a university or community college will be able to establish publicly funded schools with no teacher tenure. (See Education Week, Oct. 13, 1993.)

The law also:

  • Requires schools to adopt a sexual-harassment policy for students and staff and urges districts to implement multicultural studies;
  • Creates by 1995 an interactive video- and data-exchange system for schools statewide;
  • Allows public universities and community colleges to offer courses for high school credits; and
  • Sets academic-performance standards for students to meet at each grade level.

Lawmakers steered clear of a political minefield by stressing that classroom instruction should focus on academic and cognitive teaching. The law bans discussions of behavior, attitudes, values, and beliefs unless they are essential to teaching about the legal, economic, and social structure of society.

'They Did It Right'

Although it had been sharply critical of the initial school-reform and -finance plan introduced by Mr. Engler, the Michigan Education Association cheered the final version of the law.

"We were all sitting on pins and needles, but now everything seems very positive regardless of voter approval,'' said Kim Brennen Root, the communications director for the teachers' union. "We are very pleased that it is solved and the legislature opted for a back-up plan.''

Officials of the M.E.A. and other education groups were also relieved that they will not have to use campaign funds to push the ballot proposal, since school funding is guaranteed regardless of the outcome. Education officials predicted last week that Governor Engler will be the lone advocate for the ballot measure.

"Now the selling job begins,'' said Mr. Truscott.

For local educators, the dominant feeling was one of relief at the outcome of a crisis that began when lawmakers almost without warning voted to remove more than $6 billion in property taxes from the school-funding system.

"We complain that our leaders don't often show statesmanship,'' Mr. King said. "This process wasn't pretty, but I think that in the end, they did it right.''

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