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Mich. Lawmakers Face Hot-Button Issues in Fall Session

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When Michigan lawmakers convene their fall session this week, they are expected to put a Republican stamp on a massive plan for statewide school reform.

Since lawmakers launched a bipartisan effort two years ago to overhaul the state's school-funding system, Republicans have won full control of the legislature. Now, they are poised to show their strength on a host of hotly disputed education issues.

Two years ago, lawmakers voted to require mandatory core-curriculum standards for local districts. But the state school board--which has also seen control shift to a Republican majority--recently voted to simply recommend the standards as models that local districts would not be forced to follow. Many observers expect the Republican legislature to follow suit. (See Education Week, Aug. 2, 1995.)

Beyond curriculum standards, several other changes could make their way to the floor as the state confronts a call by Gov. John Engler, a second-term Republican, to rewrite the education code.

Lawmakers appear more inclined to make substantial revisions instead of starting from scratch, observers said. But even without going to the lengths Mr. Engler suggested, school officials could be in for major changes.

Many of the state's most controversial education policies are expected to be reopened. The areas of likely review include:

  • School choice. Lawmakers will consider giving students an automatic release from their neighborhood schools, freeing them to attend any public school their parents choose. Currently, school districts must grant each release.
  • Charter schools. Republicans are interested in relaxing the cap on the number of charters state colleges and universities can grant. They are also considering plans to expand the range of organizations eligible to apply for charters.
  • Local control. The legislature, which now spells out the powers that local school districts have, may instead opt for a provision that gives local administrators more "general powers" and lists only prohibited activities, thus granting them more freedom.
  • Teacher tenure. Republican lawmakers may once again reopen the state's collective-bargaining law to trim the rights of teachers' unions. Tenure may also no longer be permanent. Instead, lawmakers may require teachers to renew that status every few years.
  • School finance. The legislature may also look into some modifications to Proposal A, the revamped school-finance system it approved in 1993 that reduced local property taxes and poured more state funds into local school budgets.

Spirited Debate

Whatever comes out of the session, which will break late this year and continue next year, will almost certainly bear the mark of its conservative authors. But analysts said the slim Republican majority in the House, where the split is 56 to 54, will require some concessions to Democrats and lead to spirited debate.

Education lobbyists preparing for the session said the busy agenda only continues the hectic schedule that lawmakers set when they bit off the finance changes two years ago.

"The pace has been frantic anyway, so we are used to being in the throes of this in one way or another," said Ray S. Telman, the associate executive director of the Michigan Association of School Administrators.

As the session has neared, Gov. Engler has called for bold changes by lawmakers and a disregard for education groups interested in preserving current policies.

Mr. Telman acknowledged that many educators find themselves in an unusual position as the reform debate begins.

"Education is under the gun, and the people making that argument about change see good guys and bad guys," he said. "We sometimes get mentioned as the bad guy, but we are not just an education interest.

"We run the biggest restaurant and the biggest business in town."

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