Published Online: January 5, 2010

State Now Has Power to Close Failing Mich. Schools

Gov. Jennifer Granholm on Monday signed into law a sweeping series of education bills that give the state new power to close failing schools, dump bad teachers and administrators and measure if students are moving ahead.

"Everything will be focused on, 'Is this child learning?'" Granholm told reporters before signing the bills during a ceremony at her Capitol office. "It's all about academic progress, and that's the way it should be."

The legislation also expects more from students, requiring them to stay in school until age 18, starting with the class of 2016. Students now can leave school at age 16.

It allows up to 32 more charter schools to open each year but gives the state the power to close poorly performing charter schools. It also gives professionals from areas other than education an alternative way to become teachers and allows merit pay for excellent teachers and cyber-schools for students who have dropped out.

The legislation is part of Michigan's effort to win money from the Obama administration's Race to the Top competition tied to education reform. Michigan could get up to $400 million if it's among the winners. Much of the money will go to individual districts that join the state's application and show they're making changes.

State superintendent Mike Flanagan said the new laws were long overdue, even if the state doesn't get a dime of Race to the Top money.

"Now, we're all going to be held accountable," said Flanagan, whose own job is on the line if schools don't improve. "This is a game-changer, forever."

He estimates 100 to 200 public schools could end up under state control under the new laws, which lawmakers passed in a series of late-night sessions in mid-December.

The state will conduct a national search for an academic reform manager who will have the power to take control of individual schools, or several schools within a district. Granholm said she'd like similar oversight over academics to be given to school financial managers such as Robert Bobb, who's overseeing a turnaround in the Detroit Public Schools.

Flanagan said it has haunted him for years that a proportion of Michigan schools have consistently failed students, but the state didn't have the tools — until now — to intervene.

"If we wouldn't send our own kids or grandkids to a school, no one should be there," he said. "There are 100 or 200 that no one should be in without dramatic change."

Flanagan doesn't expect poorer school districts to immediately compete with wealthier ones in more affluent areas. But he said students and parents in those poorer districts will see steady improvements and an end to the excuses made for why students aren't learning.

The state plans to submit its Race to the Top proposal on Jan. 15 to make sure it gets there by the Jan. 19 deadline. About $4.35 billion from the federal Recovery Act will be set aside for states that do the most to turn around struggling schools and improve student performance.

It's possible that only one or two states will win money in the first phase of the competition, Flanagan said, but states that don't make the initial cut will get feedback on how to improve their application before a second deadline in April.

Teachers and administrators will be evaluated each year based in part on student test scores, and those who receive poor evaluations may be asked to leave. Teachers' unions are concerned about provisions they said would undermine the collective bargaining process in failing schools taken over by the state.

Some school districts also have held back from signing memorandums of understanding the state is seeking to bolster its chances for winning the Race to the Top money. Signed by the local superintendent, local school board president and local teachers' union president, the documents are commitments from school districts to implement the new education changes and are due later this week.

House Education Committee Chairman Tim Melton, the Auburn Hills Democrat who worked with GOP Senate Education Chairman Wayne Kuipers of Holland to shape and pass the package of bills, said it's not surprising reservations remain about the scope of the changes Granholm signed into law.

"There was not one single group ... that got everything it wanted," Melton said. "It wasn't easy, but we battled through and got it done."

Associated Press Writer Kathy Barks Hoffman wrote this report.

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