Published Online: November 12, 2009

Mich. Schools Chief Says Laws Needed to Get Grants

Michigan will have to change state law to have any shot at a slice of more than $4 billion set aside by the Obama administration for states that shake up their public school systems, the state's schools chief said Thursday.

Michigan schools superintendent Mike Flanagan said the state should adopt many of the reform measures aimed at improving schools regardless of the Obama administration's economic incentive. But doing so within the next two months would give Michigan a crack at an estimated $200 million to $400 million to boost its financially sagging schools.

Fewer than half the states are likely to win the money in what is expected to be a highly competitive program.

The money would come from the Obama administration's Race to the Top competition funded by the federal economic stimulus package. The cash could help offset announced funding cuts to Michigan schools of at least $292 per student, a 4 percent reduction for districts that received a minimum of $7,316 per student last year. Thirty-nine of the state's better funded districts could face cuts of more than $600 per student.

The Legislature so far has not agreed on ways to restore the latest cuts ordered last month by Gov. Jennifer Granholm. The new federal competition could provide another option to restore some of the lost cash while making changes that state lawmakers, in some cases, already were considering.

"This is an opportunity to have money behind it and get our act together quickly," Flanagan told the House Education Committee.

Boosting opportunities for charter schools and basing teacher evaluations partly on their students' test scores are among the changes that would fit in with the initiative. The program includes four broad goals that Obama wants states to pursue: tougher academic standards, better ways to recruit and keep effective teachers, a method of tracking student performance and a plan of action to turn around failing schools.

Democrats who run the Michigan House and Republicans who control the Senate already have introduced some bills that would help the state compete for the federal cash. Other legislation is expected to be introduced soon. But some of the proposals differ and it's not clear if lawmakers will reach a compromise in time.

Applications from the states are due in January. Grants could be awarded starting in April.

The Michigan House already has passed legislation that would allow chronically failing schools to be supervised by a state-appointed turnaround specialist. Democrats are drafting more bills to make changes tying into the initiative.

The Senate Education Committee also is considering bills aimed at chronically failing public schools and legislation to create alternative teacher certification programs.

The certification programs typically have been aimed at enticing people from business backgrounds to teach math, science and specialty programs in middle schools and high schools. But the proposals concern the Michigan Education Association, the state's largest teachers union, in part because they might also be used to recruit more elementary school teachers or less specialized teachers that are not needed.

Many teachers already have to leave Michigan each year in search of work.

Rep. Tim Melton, a Democrat from Auburn Hills and chairman of the House Education Committee, urged lawmakers and education groups to work together to come up with a plan.

"Let's not find a way to say no," Melton said. "Let's find a way to say yes."

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