Lansing — Michigan's Department of Education will seek a legal opinion on the state's new A-F school rating system before it begins implementation.

Martin Ackley, spokesman for the state education department, said Friday his office will be reaching out to state Attorney General Dana Nessel and the U.S. Department of Education because a portion of the new law violates federal law.

"We are not necessarily 'holding off' implementation of the new law, as we have until August 1 to develop the new A-F system and submit it to the yet-to-be-named Peer Review Panel," Ackley said.

"But, as these systems will take time to develop and plan implementation, we are planning to reach out very soon to the U.S. Department of Education and the Michigan Attorney General’s office for guidance on the fact that portions of the new law violate federal law."

A Dec. 18 letter by interim state Superintendent Sheila Alles, who opposes the new system, raised legal concerns before the law was approved by both chambers and signed by the governor last month.

In the letter to the Michigan Senate about the new system, Alles said the new law exempts special education students from the participation rate in the state's assessment, which would violate federal disability law and federal education law. 

Alles also said the federally-approved Every Student Succeeds Acts or ESSA requires all schools to be included in a single accountability system. The new law omits alternative education campuses from the system and would violate ESSA, Alles said.

"Much of that (letter) will be the basis of what we ask the U.S. Department of Education and the Michigan Attorney General’s office for guidance on, then determine how best to move forward," Ackley said.

The controversial legislation was signed into law on Dec. 28 by then-Gov. Rick Snyder. It requires the state to rate K-12 schools on various metrics and hand out A-F letter grades for parents to review.

The law says in 90 days, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer will get to appoint three members to the peer-review panel and GOP legislative leaders would appoint two others.

Cassandra E. Ulbrich, co-president of the state board of education, said Friday she supports the legal review.

"(Alles) sent a letter to the Senate, saying the bill was problematic and potentially violated federal law, and the Legislature and governor moved forward anyway," Ulbrich said. "It makes perfect sense to request the AG opinion and reach out to U.S. Department of Education to identify what the next steps should be and potential sanctions and consequences."

The law is backed by the charter school lobby and choice advocates who say it will help parents make informed decisions about where to send their children.

Unions and traditional public school groups objected to the plan, arguing it could stigmatize schools with high student-poverty rates and disrupt districts already adjusting to a new state accountability tool unveiled in January.

The A-F system does not assign a cumulative letter grade to each school. Instead, it hands out grades in five areas: English and math proficiency on a state test, growth in English and math scores, growth among English language learners, high school graduation rates and academic performance compared with similar schools.

The state will rate schools as significantly above average, above average, average, below average or significantly below average based on student rates of chronic absenteeism, participation on state tests and performance compared to similar peers.

Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti blasted the legislation in December because it could also force the city district to use the proposed state system instead of its own A-F letter grade system that was mandated under a 2016 state bailout and is set to be unveiled later this month.

The Community Education Commission, formed by Mayor Mike Duggan to ensure access to Detroit schools, developed the Detroit grading system in an “unprecedented” collaboration with public school officials, charter schools, teachers, organized labor and community groups, they said.

Vitti was not immediately available Friday for comment on MDE's decision to seek a legal opinion. The commission is meeting later this month to discuss its own system for Detroit. 

School choice and charter advocates contend that creating a uniform system across the state will help parents make informed decisions about where to send their children.

Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, said his organization has no comment on MDE's plans to seek a legal opinion.

"We’re very supportive of the new A-F accountability system," Quisenberry said. "We’ve supported it from the start, and we feel it’s going to benefit students and parents."

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