EDITOR’s NOTE: Kathy Barks Hoffman heads the Lansing AP bureau and has covered Michigan politics since 1986.
Michigan lawmakers are in such a frenzy to qualify for up to $400 million in one-time money for schools from President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top program that they’re rushing through complex changes to the state’s education structure in a matter of weeks.
Meanwhile, they haven’t agreed on how to keep school districts from getting hit by cuts of roughly $300 to $600 per student that have administrators contemplating laying off teachers, closing schools and eliminating busing, among other cost-saving moves.
They could be debating the positives and negatives of a proposal suggested recently by state Rep. Alma Wheeler Smith, a Democratic gubernatorial hopeful, to trim some business tax exemptions and use the money to roll back a business tax surcharge and plug the $500 million hole in the state’s education fund.
They could be looking for ways to restore after-school and preschool programs, both of which have been proven to help students learn and improve test scores, or the college scholarships that encouraged high school students to do better in school.
But this fall, lawmakers eliminated the Michigan Promise Grant scholarships, as well as money for math and science centers and after-school math programs. They drastically reduced funding for school readiness programs, preschool programs and the Youth Challenge Academy that gives a second chance to struggling high school students.
Now lawmakers — and Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm — are focusing on chasing after an infusion of federal cash. Fewer than half the states are expected to get a share of the $4 billion federal pot, and the states that win will spread the money to only a small number of school districts.
To hear Granholm tell it, jumping on U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s bandwagon is the only way forward for Michigan schools.
Some of the education changes being considered by lawmakers to help Michigan win up to $400 million in federal Race to the Top funds:
—Provide an interim teaching certificate for people coming to schools from other professions with as little as an additional semester of college coursework.
—Remove the cap on charter schools so there can be more of them, but close poorly performing charter schools.
—Allow schools to move to year-round classes, requiring that the state’s no-school-until-after-Labor-Day law be put aside.
—Allow chronically failing schools to be supervised by a state-appointed turnaround specialist.
—Allow the state superintendent develop or approve standards for teacher effectiveness, opening the way to discipline or dismiss ineffective teachers.
—Require annual evaluations of teachers, principals and other leaders based on how well students are doing.
—Benchmark state education standards to international standards.
—Create a comprehensive data system that can track student progress from preschool to graduate school.
—Require school principals be certified by the state.
“We have to rise to the top among the states that are competing for these important resources,” she told the Network of Michigan Educators on Tuesday. “No state needs it more than we do — not just financially, but from the long-term perspective of changing our economy. We must win.”
By offering the Race to the Top money, Obama hopes to encourage states to toughen academic standards, find better ways to recruit and keep effective teachers, track student performance and have a plan of action to turn around failing schools.
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ron Jelinek, a Three Rivers Republican who taught science, agriculture and industrial technology for 30 years in Berrien County’s River Valley School District, said the goals will do little to help students succeed.
“My premise is the biggest reason that ... students are failing is because either many of them don’t attend school regularly enough or they don’t come with the attitude to learn,” he said Friday. “To send in a CEO to fix a school ... isn’t going to help unless you fix that problem. So I think we’re going at it wrong.”
Former President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind program was often criticized as a top-down, federally mandated one-size-fits-all solution that did little to improve failing school systems like Detroit’s. Now Obama is offering a carrot to get states to voluntarily take on a new set of standards to improve education.
Yet some of the Race to the Top changes don’t really fit Michigan.
Bills passed Wednesday by the Senate, for instance, would provide an interim teaching certificate for people coming to schools from other professions with as little as an additional semester of college coursework, something Granholm supports.
“When we have the opportunity to turn an automotive engineer into a great science teacher, we need to jump at that opportunity,” Granholm said Tuesday.
But Michigan already graduates far more teachers than its schools can absorb. Many new graduates 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.
The legislation also would remove the cap on charter schools, something that has been a sore point with charter school advocates for years. But Michigan already has a robust charter school system in place.
Michigan ranks fourth nationally in the number and percentage of students attending charter schools, according to the Michigan Association of Public School Academies. Thirty-two percent of Detroit students attend charter schools, as do 24 percent in Flint. Only California, Florida and Texas have more students attending charter schools than the nearly 101,000 in Michigan.
Then there’s the issue of when schools should begin holding classes each fall. In 2005, lawmakers passed and Granholm signed into law a bill banning the start of school until after Labor Day.
The move to help tourist businesses in the state attract more late-August visitors hasn’t done all its supporters hoped, but it has given businesses a boost, especially in northern Michigan.
Now the House is considering doing away with the post-Labor Day start to improve Michigan’s chances of winning the $400 million. The measure could pass next week before opponents even have much time to launch a protest.
State superintendent Mike Flanagan says the state should adopt many of the measures regardless of the Race to the Top incentives because they’re good ideas.
The Michigan House has passed legislation that would allow chronically failing schools to be supervised by a state-appointed turnaround specialist, an idea that has wide support at the Capitol.
And the state Senate on Thursday passed bills that would let the state superintendent develop or approve standards for teacher effectiveness. It’s not clear if student test scores would be included, but ineffective teachers could be disciplined or dismissed if they didn’t meet the standards.
Both bills would force teachers and schools to toe the line, creating new tools to improve education. Michigan already has taken steps to make students live up to higher standards with some of the nation’s most rigorous graduation requirements, which fits in well with the Obama administration’s goal of having a set of common academic standards adopted by every state.
It isn’t possible to pass the ideas that would help Michigan and ignore the ones that don’t fit, however, without ending the state’s chances to win the federal money.
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