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Mich. Education-Code Overhaul Shifts Power

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Michigan lawmakers have approved the first major changes in the state's education code in two decades, drastically recasting the relationship between state officials and local school districts.

Senate Bill 679 would give school boards and superintendents authority to set their own course without having to search through state laws to determine whether they can launch a new program or revamp local procedures. Districts would face a wide range of new options under a law that narrowly spells out what is off limits, rather than listing what districts can do.

Aides said last week that Gov. John Engler would sign the bill within days.

Deliberations over the new code occupied lawmakers until the final days of their 1995 session. The House passed the bill 57-44 on Dec. 12. The Senate had cleared the bill in October by a 21-16 vote.

Throughout the past year, proposed changes in the direction of education law were a top concern of school groups in the state. Gov. Engler announced in his State of the State speech last year that he wanted the entire code rewritten with as much power as possible returned to school districts.

As the year ended, the job of modifying the 172-page document fell to Sen. Leon Stille and Rep. William R. Bryant Jr., the GOP education committee chairmen.

In the end, 205 of the 620 sections of the code were eliminated, among them a provision that each school have its own pest inspector. Sixty-five more sections were modified, and 25 sections were created.

The final bill is much more moderate than the big changes Mr. Engler proposed last January. And, given the Republican domination of the legislature, state school board, and governor's office, the bill pushes no bold political agenda.

New Authority

The bill would grant broad new "general powers" to school districts. Under the current system, districts can only take actions or operate programs that are first authorized by law. Senate Bill 679 would allow districts to take any action "incidental or appropriate" to operating a school system.

The bill would eliminate a mandated core curriculum, giving districts freedom to set their own programs. The state's tests, however, would be geared toward a model state core curriculum, and schools would have to offer programs in all of the areas covered by the state model.

Site-based-decisionmaking requirements for schools were also deleted, as was a certification requirement for administrators.

The bill would eliminate the state mandate for providing bilingual education. The state would continue to pay for bilingual programs, and districts must still comply with federal mandates. But observers are eager to see how districts respond to the relaxed state requirement.

Opposition came largely from Democrats, who had fought to impose a statewide core curriculum in 1993 and who questioned the loosening of so many rules, particularly certification standards.

Among other provisions, the bill would:

  • Raise the ceiling on the number of charter schools that could be created. K-12 districts would have authority to grant charters, and limits on charters granted by state universities would be raised from the current 75 to 150 by 1998.
  • Lengthen the school year over a 10-year period, stretching the current 180-day, 990-instructional-hour requirement to 190 days and 1,140 hours by the 2006-07 school year. At least five days of professional development for teachers would also be phased in.
  • Expand alternative teacher certification to allow school boards to hire uncertified applicants for high school positions if the candidates have two years of work experience in their subject areas. Hiring requirements for substitute teachers would also be relaxed, allowing anyone with 90 hours of college credit to apply. School boards would also be allowed to adopt merit-pay plans for employees.

A 'Big Step'

Education groups that lobbied feverishly for the final version of the bill said local educators should be pleased with the lawmakers' work.

"The adjustment to the new system is going to be a long process, but this is not going to be a shock to anyone," said Justin P. King, the executive director of the Michigan School Boards Association. "We've always said our schools are full of talented people who would make smart decisions if they had the chance, and now we are going to have the chance to demonstrate that."

The massive revisions to the education code follow a 1993 legislative session that accomplished an even more exhaustive overhaul of the state's school-finance system. A spokesman for Gov. Engler said last week that education issues will remain high on the political agenda.

"This was another big step," said Pat Masserant, the governor's deputy press secretary. "But he's not anywhere near done."

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