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Mich. Senate Makes Quick, and Conservative, Work of Law Rewrite

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House lawmakers in Michigan began work last week on the Senate's newly completed, rapid-fire rewrite of the state's education laws.

The Senate MEAsure modifies and repeals existing regulations and provides for some looser rules for school districts, including an open-enrollment system that theoretically would make all the state's schools open to any student.

The Senate bill does not require a state-endorsed core curriculum, an issue lawmakers had earlier supported that met with opposition from the state school board. (See Education Week, Aug. 2, 1995.)

The bill would vastly widen the pool of candidates for Michigan teaching jobs, lift the lid on the number of charter schools that state universities can approve, and make it easier for districts to opt out of providing bilingual education.

The legislature is using its fall session to respond to Gov. John Engler's call earlier this year to start from scratch on the state's complex web of school laws. The governor has since agreed with legislative leaders that revamping the current set of laws may be more practical. Over the past several weeks, the Senate moved quickly on the education-code modifications, producing a final bill late last month.

House committees are now taking up the bill. The Senate is expected to rejoin the process next month when the two chambers hammer out a final version.

Republican Power Surge

The decidedly conservative overtones of the revamped code reflect Michigan's new political landscape. Since a massive school-finance-reform bill was approved almost two years ago, Republicans have gained control of both legislative chambers and the state school board. All of that has allowed Gov. Engler, a Republican who easily won a second term a year ago, to set the tone on school reform and let others put the changes into law.

The state's Republican domination continues to produce bad news for its teachers' union, a longtime backer of Democrats.

The Senate bill would allow the state to issue teaching certificates to anyone with five years of occupational experience in a given subject as long as he or she passed a basic-skills and subject-area exam. Teachers with out-of-state certification would be granted one-year temporary certification and could gain Michigan credentials by passing the same basic-skills and subject test.

As they have gained power in the state capital, Republicans have increasingly targeted the unions' grip in school districts. Earlier laws have stripped the once-mighty Michigan Education Association of some collective-bargaining powers and imposed fines on striking teachers. Lawmakers also have allowed districts to use competitive bids when seeking a health-care provider, shifting business away from a health-insurance business operated by the MEA. (See Education Week, May 17, 1995.)

But lawmakers are now casting a wider net, seeking to remake one of the nation's largest school systems into a model of entrepreneurship and free enterprise.

Looser Charter Program

The bill makes way for expansion of the state's charter school program. State officials said 41 schools are operating under the law passed in 1993. Community colleges and state universities can approve groups to operate the charter schools, which receive public funding but operate outside the administration of local school districts and abide by only minimal state rules. The bill would allow local districts to grant charters as well.

Senators decided to lift the limit on the number of charters that can be approved by state universities, which were the only group to have a limit. Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant has been particularly active in encouraging and licensing charter schools, having approved more than half the schools now operating and given the go-ahead to 20 more new schools that will open by next fall.

The bill would also permit school districts to raise local property taxes in order to pay for a new charter school under the district's management.

In one act of tighter state control, the Senate chose to require a 195-day school year by 2011-12 and increase the minimum number of instructional hours to 1,170 by the same school year. The state now requires a 180-day school year and 990 instructional hours, which increases to 1,080 by 1999-2000.

On other fronts, the Senate bill would "permit, instead of require," districts to establish bilingual-education programs while requiring the state to continue funding bilingual programs at this year's level.

The bill also would repeal dozens of sections of the school code--which last underwent a major rewrite in 1976--including rules relating to nature-study areas, sabbatical leaves, library/media centers, common calendars, school-bus operations, and boarding of students.

House lawmakers are expected to rehash those issues, beginning in committee, but are likely to be more conservative in their changes.

Meanwhile, the Senate last week was debating a separate bill to allow charter school students to participate on athletic teams and in some extracurricular activities at nearby public schools.

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