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Bill brief: They're Baaaaaaack...

As parents and children settle down for the new school year, our lawmakers in Lansing return from their summer break, refreshed and full of ideas. Watch out. This fall session, in between election years, is where a lot of the legislative work gets done - not all of it good. There are a number of new education-related proposals, some of which are moving very quickly. Here's an overview:

  • Back door tax credit vouchers
  • A-F rating of schools - the legislation that wouldn't die
  • A piece of the action - charters could get a share of enhancement millages
  • State takeover writ large - proposal to eliminate State Board of Education
  • Guns in schools revisited

Hypocrisy alert: Vouchers for the well-to-do

First out of the starting gate is a package of bills in the state Senate which would create an "enhanced" Michigan Education Savings Account so parents could make tax deductible contributions to pay for K-12 school expenses. (This would be an addition to the existing plan which covers post-secondary education.) The bills - SB 544 through SB 549 - were sponsored variously by Senators Patrick Colbeck (R-Canton Twp), Phil Pavlov (R-St Clair), Judy Emmons (R-Sheridan), and Mike Green (R-Mayville). The Senate Fiscal Agency summary of the bills as reported from committee can be found here.

Sounds OK, right? A little tax break for setting aside money for those athletic fees? Well, hold on to your wallet. The SFA estimates that the cost to set up the program could reach $100 million, with indeterminate costs after that - on top of tax revenue losses from the deduction. Families could deduct up to $5000 (single return) or $10,000 (joint return) of contributions per account.

Do they really expect parents to believe that they would spend $100 million of taxpayer money and offer deductions of up to $10,000 in contributions just so we could pay for sports fees and field trips? But wait, there's more: districts, charters and ISDs would be required to list "eligible" expenses in various categories - everything from core instruction to extracurricular activities. All 'public' schools would be able to receive payments, though not for "core" services because public schools must offer a free education. But the Department of Treasury (NOT Education) could designate "other organizations" that provide any or all of those services which would also be eligible to receive payment. Can you say "private schools"?

For more on this "wolf-in-sheep's-clothing" legislation, and how it might also prepare the way for "unbundling" public education, see our full analysis here.

All bills in the package were reported out of committee and sent to the full Senate on 4-1 party-line votes. The package has been holding on the Senate floor without action since late September, however.

Return of A-F school grading promised, but no action so far

One of the requirements of the new Every Student Succeeds Act is for states to identify how they intend to enforce accountability on schools and districts. In other words, "Forget about the carrot, what stick are you using?" When the Michigan Department of Education revised their submission to the Federal government, they removed a proposal to use A-F grading of schools and focused entirely on their "partnership district" program. Under this program, which resembles MIPFS's proposal to assist struggling schools, MDE will assign lead experts to work with local districts on changes that address the difficulties faced by their schools, and districts agree to make changes identified by this process. Districts will also be required to post a variety of information, including test scores, graduation rates, and other information on their web sites in what MDE is calling "transparency dashboards."

However, the idea of providing actual assistance, rather than punishment, for struggling schools was simply too much for some lawmakers and school "reform" advocates. In reaction to MDE's change of course, Rep. Tim Kelly (R-Saginaw Twp.), who chairs both the House Education committee and the School Aid Appropriations subcommittee, announced that he was going to force A-F grading on the state's schools no matter what. (This kind of school "shaming" proposal has been debated extensively in the Legislature before.) According to a report from Gongwer News Service, Kelly confronted Michigan Superintendent Brian Whiston about it in an early September hearing:

He said the current system, as well as the dashboard, fall short of providing information or accountability. "They didn't understand the colors, they didn't understand this stuff," Mr. Kelly said of parents using the current and proposed systems. "It's obvious you've done a great attempt to obfuscate the performance of schools. ... I think we still have too many in the department who want to mask that performance."

The state's accountability system will also likely carry some threat of closure for not meeting standards. "If we're not going to be serious about closing or substantially changing poor performing schools, none of this matters a whit," he said. "It's not all about money; this is about performance, this is about kids having to be in school, it's about teachers being there to teach. Both have a problem with attendance in this state."

In fact, most parents' problem with MDE's previous color-coding system was that its arcane rules often gave very good schools poor color codes, and schools with little information very good codes. Any A-F system would similarly oversimplify a school's relative quality.

Interestingly, former state representative and strong school choice advocate Tom McMillin - now a newly elected Republican member of the State Board of Education - is opposed to reviving the A-F grading proposal, much as he opposed similar ones during his time on the House Education committee. McMillin, who considers himself a libertarian, pressed for parents to be given as much relevant information as possible, much as MDE's current "transparency dashboard" would, in fact, do.

Original indications were that Rep. Kelly intended to bring forward A-F grading as part of a supplemental appropriations bill, but informed observers say that now it may be paired with measures to "ban" the Common Core State Standards in Michigan - mostly in order to undercut the opposition of Mr. McMillin and others to letter grading since they also tend to oppose the Common Core. As of this writing, no proposals have been made public.

A piece of the action - charter schools and regional millages

Also on the list of fast-moving bills is one which would allow charter schools located in an ISD to get a per-pupil share of revenues from regional "enhancement" millages on the same basis as local districts. Senate Bill 574 passed the full Senate by a vote of 23-14, with four Republicans joining Democrats in opposition, and is now under consideration by the House.

Since the adoption of the Proposal A school funding system in 1994, local school districts are unable to vote to increase local taxes for school operating costs (but can do so for capital expenditures). The only exception to this rule is the option of an "enhancement" millage of up to 3 mills, which can be levied equally across an entire ISD and is then distributed to districts on a per-pupil basis. Historically, these millages were difficult to pass, as intended by the Legislature when it wrote the rules. Joining the Kalamazoo area (and a few other communities with smaller millages) are the Kent and Wayne regions, which passed enhancement millages in recent months. This apparently triggered the push to let charter schools, which have no tax levy authority of their own and receive all their funds from the state, to share in the proceeds.

The Senate defeated (not always along party lines) amendments intended to prevent charters with for-profit management companies, without elected boards (nearly no charters have elected boards), or which do not participate in the state school retirement system (MPSERS), from receiving millage money. The Senate did adopt a floor amendment from Sen. Judy Emmons (R-Sheridan) which would require that money received by a charter school be used entirely for the benefit of the charter located in the ISD which approved the millage. An earlier amendment limited the change to charters which already had a contract before the enhancement millage was put to a vote.

Mayoral control writ large: proposal to eliminate the SBE

Over the last two weeks, the House Education committee held hearings on a proposed constitutional amendment that would eliminate the elected State Board of Education and replace the Board-hired Superintendent of Public Instruction with a department director appointed by the Governor. House Joint Resolution M remains in the Education committee, and would require a two-thirds vote in both legislative chambers to be put on the statewide ballot.

Bill sponsor Rep. Tim Kelly, the committee chair, said the proposal was not the result of a political "grudge" (the SBE had a Democratic majority until January and often opposed school "reform" bills in the Legislature) but rather because he feels the board is inactive and "irrelevant." Other supporters cast the bill in terms of increasing accountability. Elimination of the state board was most recently recommended by Gov. Snyder's 21st Century Education Commission earlier this year, but efforts to restrict its powers date back at least two decades. Former Gov. John Engler was famous for using his executive power to move duties away from the state board to other state agencies, or even the superintendent. Most education-related bills since 2010 have, regardless of their main purpose, also replaced references to the state board with references to the state superintendent.

The election of a State Board of Education is not a new development - an elected state board has been specified by every Michigan constitution since the second version was ratified in 1850. The state Superintendent was also elected from 1850 until the adoption of the 1963 constitution.

During the hearings, State Board members Michelle Fecteau (a Democrat) and Tom McMillin (a Republican and former State Representative) engaged in a spirited debate with House Education committee members over the value of the SBE's work. McMillin, often a critic of public schools, attacked the proposal as excessive centralization of public education: "To support HJR M is to show a desire for an authoritarian school system, for further removing local control from those closest to children, for removing much of the access every day citizens have to those implementing education policy," he said, according to Gongwer. Rep. Kelly acknowledged that it would be difficult to put together the needed super-majorities in both chambers to send the proposed amendment to voters.

Schools as gun-free zones? Only if you are a student.

With little fanfare, some state Senators have re-introduced legislation which would have the effect of allowing all holders of concealed weapon permits to carry their weapons into schools and other "gun-free" areas. Senate Bills 584 and 586, sponsored or co-sponsored by Senate majority leader Alan Meekhof (R-West Olive) and Education committee chair Phil Pavlov (R-Saint Clair), were introduced without fanfare in late September.

SB 584 would allow any concealed pistol license holder to request a special endorsement which would allow them to carry their weapon into otherwise "gun free" zones, subject only to providing evidence that they had taken some hours of gun safety classes. Under current law, only law enforcement officers, security guards and similar individuals on official business were allowed to continue to carry their weapon into schools.

The companion bill, SB 586, would explicitly include school districts, ISDs and other such entities in the list of "units of local government" which could not have restrictions on guns tighter than those set by the state. Two Michigan school districts currently have lawsuits pending which are largely based on the fact that school districts were left out of the list of units of local government enumerated in that section of statute. This bill would wipe away that exception.

Ironically, the draft legislation specifies that schools remain able to restrict weapons carried by their students, though they would be unable to interfere with anyone else holding a permit. The bills are both awaiting action in the Senate Government Operations committee.

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