Published Online: December 10, 2009

Mich. Lawmakers Continue Pursuit of Fed. Schools Cash

Next week could be crucial in determining how far Michigan lawmakers will go in hopes of winning up to $400 million in extra federal stimulus money for the state's cash-strapped public schools.

The Democratic-led House approved broad education reform legislation related to the effort Thursday, including bills that would allow expansion of charter schools and create alternatives in the certification of teachers. Bills with similar themes have been approved by the Republican-led Senate. But key differences remain — especially related to allowing new charter schools — that must be resolved soon if they are to be included in the state's formal application for Race to the Top money offered in a competition from the Obama administration.

Legislative leaders from both parties already have made some compromises in hopes of helping Michigan's efforts to win the extra cash. But there will be more hurdles to overcome as much of the legislation goes to bipartisan conference committees made up of House and Senate members next week.

"The difference will be on how we deal with the charter piece," said Rep. Tim Melton, an Auburn Hills Democrat and a key House negotiator on the legislative package. "But I think we're going to find middle ground. The intent is clear — let the best performing operators expand."

The Race to the Top program is funded by more than $4 billion from the federal stimulus package. The Obama administration will grant the money to states that most aggressively implement ideas such as expanding charter schools or judging teachers based on test scores. Applications are due from states in January.

Fewer than half the states are expected to win the cash. Michigan would get between $200 million and $400 million if selected as one of the winners.

Legislation approved by the House on Thursday would allow the state to authorize a new type of charter school. The so-called schools of excellence would require operators to have met certain academic standards with existing schools before they could open new ones. The new charter schools would be confined to lower-income areas, and poor-performing charter schools could be closed.

Senate legislation also relies on charter school operators with good track records but does not place limits on where they could be opened.

"We need to make sure that we have competition across districts, and that means getting rid of the barriers to charter expansion," said Sen. Wayne Kuipers, a Holland Republican and a key crafter of the Senate package. "I would say defining where they can go is a barrier."

The Senate also will push for measures that would make it easier to dismiss or discipline ineffective teachers, including those with tenure.

The state schools chief would have more power to take over and put turnaround specialists into the state's worst-performing schools, although the House and Senate versions differ on how that would be done.

Teachers would be evaluated based in part on how well their students do on standardized tests.

An alternative certification program would be created to get people with special skills into classrooms more quickly without as much of the formal training now required for teachers. The teachers could obtain an interim certificate and enter the classroom while working toward a permanent certificate.

Some education groups, including teachers' unions, have said alternative certification is unnecessary because the state doesn't have a teacher shortage.

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