Published Online: December 1, 2009

Michigan Senate Panel OKs Education Law Changes

Michigan lawmakers revved up their pursuit of up to $400 million in federal cash for schools Tuesday as a Senate committee approved bills that would allow the expansion of charter schools, create alternative paths for teacher certification and provide a framework for reorganizing failing schools.

The cash may provide the incentive for Michigan to make changes that lawmakers have discussed for years.

The bills could be voted on by the Republican-led Senate later this week. The Democrat-led House, which already has approved some similar measures, also continued discussions Tuesday about what could be done to win Race to the Top money offered by the Obama administration.

The competition will reward states that make significant changes to improve schools. The money is of particular interest in Michigan, which is in the process of cutting state aid to schools by a minimum of $292 per student.

The federal stimulus money would not be used as a direct replacement to the lost state aid, education officials say, but it could boost funding for some school-related projects.

States must apply for the federal funding by mid-January.

"It is an opportunity we cannot afford to pass up, but the due date is quickly approaching," Republican Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop said in a statement.

Some educators and teachers unions oppose some of the changes the Senate committee agreed to Tuesday, including a proposal that would provide an interim teaching certificate for people coming to schools from other professions with as little as an additional semester of college coursework.

The goal would be to attract top-notch math and science teachers to Michigan schools. But some educators argue the state doesn't need more teachers, particularly at the elementary school level. Many new graduates of Michigan universities already must move out-of-state to find teaching jobs and thousands more teachers could be laid off next year if state funding cuts take effect.

"We do not have a teacher shortage," Robert LeFevre, director of legislative and legal affairs for the Macomb Intermediate School District, told lawmakers.

Other measures would allow charter school operators with a good track record to expand in Michigan. Some Democrats opposed that measure in the Senate committee because the legislation does not provide money to cushion the blow for traditional K-12 schools that may lose students to new charter schools.

Legislation that would set up a process for turning around failing schools has been criticized by some educators as too vague or giving too much discretion to the state superintendent of schools or the federal government.

The Senate soon plans to take up bills that would tie teacher evaluation to student performance and test scores as part of the effort to win Race to the Top cash.

The Michigan House has passed legislation with similar themes and more bills are expected in the near future. The House, Senate and Gov. Jennifer Granholm would have to agree on final versions of bills before any changes to state law could be made.

Granholm said the next three weeks are critical in Michigan's effort and that lawmakers must work together.

"We've all got to be on the same page in a very short amount of time," she said.

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