Published Online: December 18, 2009

Mich. Lawmakers Stumbling on Schools Changes

Michigan's effort to win up to $400 million in additional federal funding for schools threatened to get sidetracked Thursday by bipartisan bickering.

Democrats who run the Michigan House and Republicans who control the Senate said they were still hopeful compromises could be reached on school reforms to win Race to the Top money offered by the Obama administration. Lawmakers were hoping to craft a package before their scheduled adjournment for the year, which could come as soon as early Friday. They were preparing for a possible all-night session.

One of the key hang-ups is disagreement over how to allow charter schools to expand in Michigan. House Democrats favor rules that charter school supporters say would result in limited expansion only in poorly performing districts. Senate Republicans favor rules that would allow greater expansion across the state.

Sen. Wayne Kuipers, a Republican from Holland, said charter schools is only one of the sticking points in the negotiations with Democrats.

"It's an important part of the issue," Kuipers said. "But it's not the only thing by any means."

Bickering peaked early Thursday afternoon. House Democrats held a news conference during which Speaker Andy Dillon said Senate Republicans had walked away from negotiations. Dillon took out his cell phone and called Kuipers to invite him to a meeting in his office. Republicans countered that it was Democrats who had backed away from the bargaining table.

A few hours later, the key lawmakers were talking again.

Applications for Race to the Top cash are due from states in January. The Obama administration says it will split more than $4 billion in stimulus money among the states that do the most to expand charter schools and make other reforms aimed at improving the nation's schools.

Mike Flanagan, Michigan's schools superintendent, has said the state will have to reform some of its education laws to have a shot at the money.

Republicans want to include measures that would allow poorly performing teachers, including those with tenure, to be replaced.

Democrats have included proposals that would mandate students remain in school until they reach age 18, which Republicans say would cost the state up to $130 million in its first year.

Other measures would allow school turnaround specialists to take over poorly performing districts, create an alternative teacher certification program and tie teacher evaluations to student test scores.

Lawmakers have said the state's cash-strapped schools need the money offered in the federal competition. But many of the reform ideas have been kicked around the Capitol for years before the announcement of the Race to the Top competition.

"It's not just about the money," said Rep. Tim Melton of Auburn Hills, a key Democratic negotiator.

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