Mich. Legislature OKs Sweeping School Reforms

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An effort sparked by hopes of winning up to $400 million in federal money for Michigan schools could have broad implications on educational choice and quality for years to come.

The state could add more charter schools and poor-performing schools could be taken over by state officials under legislation approved Saturday in the Michigan Legislature. The broad legislation — which also raises the state's dropout age from 16 to 18 and ties teacher evaluation to student test scores — will be signed by Gov. Jennifer Granholm.

The bills are aimed at obtaining up to $400 million in the federal Race to the Top competition run by the Obama administration. The program will distribute more than $4 billion from the Recovery Act to states that most aggressively implement education reforms.

Highlights of Michigan's School Legislation

The Michigan Legislature on Saturday approved several changes to the state's education policies that Gov. Jennifer Granholm says she will sign into law. The changes are likely to strengthen the state's case when it applies for up to $400 million in extra cash for schools through the Obama administration's Race to the Top program. A few of the changes:

The state superintendent of public instruction could appoint someone to take over school operations that are in the bottom 5 percent of Michigan schools based on certain achievement standards. If low-performing schools are clustered in the same district, the entire district could be taken over. Schools on the potential takeover list would be identified by Sept. 1, 2010. School boards would have 90 days to submit a turnaround plan, which could be accepted or rejected about a month later.

So-called schools of excellence, much like charter schools, could be opened in the state by operators with good track records. Different pathways would be established for allowing the number of charters to grow, although it's not known how many might open in a given year. Operators with charters in higher-poverty areas could expand if 70 percent of their students meet proficiency standards on certain standardized tests. At least 90 percent of students would have to meet proficiency standards in other districts. Graduation rates in districts also would factor into decisions about new charter opportunities. Limited opportunities would exist for "cyber schools" that offer full-time, online instruction.

The dropout age would rise from 16 to 18, starting with students now in the sixth grade. Students could still drop out at age 16 with their parents' permission.

Standardized test scores would be part of the teacher evaluation process. Chronically poor-performing teachers, including those with tenure, could be removed from classrooms.

An interim teaching certificate would be available in an attempt to recruit people with science, math and other specialized backgrounds into classrooms.

Applications are due from states in January; fewer than half of them are likely to win money through the competition. But the bills approved Saturday likely will strengthen Michigan's bid.

"This puts us in great position for Race to the Top," said Rep. Tim Melton, an Auburn Hills Democrat and a key architect of the package.

Melton and others instrumental in crafting the legislation say it wasn't just about the money. They noted some of the reforms passed Saturday have been talked about in Michigan for years.

But they wouldn't have passed — at least not Saturday — if not for the financial incentive.

There's no guarantee Michigan will get Race to the Top money. And even if it does, it would not alleviate Michigan's short-term school finance ills, which includes a budget cut of $165 per pupil this academic year.

But Race to the Top could help provide money for school innovation in an era where money is in short supply except through the federal Recovery Act.

"At least in my memory, this has the potential to be the most extraordinary change and reform in education policy in Michigan," said Sen. Wayne Kuipers, a Republican from Holland and a key negotiator in the package. "As this begins to unfold over the next few years, we will see some extraordinary changes taking place."

The package has five main bills, most of which were hastily written and drew some opposition from members of the both the Republican-led Senate and the Democrat-led House. Votes were as close as 65-33 in the House and 23-8 in the Senate, although some bills passed by far greater margins with bipartisan support.

Sen. Mike Prusi, D-Ispheming, said the legislation went too far too fast. Lawmakers jammed through the legislation in a few short weeks after guidelines for the Race to the Top competition was announced last month.

"There was a lot of stuff thrown into this that has nothing to do with Race to the Top," Prusi said.

The complex, far-ranging legislation will be studied for days by schools and labor unions to better gauge its implications.

Representatives of teachers' unions compromised and signed off on much of the package. But unions were upset with provisions they said would undermine the collective bargaining process in schools that are taken over by the state schools chief.

The state's lowest-performing schools, based on a series of academic measures, could be taken over and placed under the direction of a reform officer. Entire local districts could be taken over in some cases.

"The issue here is with taking away the voice of school employees who work in struggling schools taken over by the school reform officer," said Doug Pratt, a spokesman for the Michigan Education Association.

Charter school operators with good track records would be able to apply to open new schools across the state, although the performance thresholds will be lower in areas where traditional school districts perform poorly and are in high-poverty areas.

"Today's action is all about helping kids get a first-class education in a world that demands nothing less," Granholm said in a statement commending lawmakers for passing the legislation.

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