Looming automatic tax cut has Michigan Democrats studying options

Detroit superintendent blasts state A-F school grades legislation

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
Tim Kelly

Lansing — Detroit public schools could be forced to scrap a new A-F school grading system it has not yet unveiled and instead use a statewide grading system under legislation approved early Thursday by Michigan’s Republican-led House.

Hours after lawmakers approved the controversial measure in a 3 a.m. vote, Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti blasted the proposal on social media, suggesting the state is treating city residents and teachers like “third-class” citizens.

“Under current state law, we engaged stakeholders to develop a single letter grade system that is superior to what is in the House bill,” Vitti said. “That work is disrespected and ignored. Yes, we were ready to grade our own schools.”

Michigan lawmakers required Detroit to implement its own A-F grading system as part of a $617 million state bailout in 2016.  Two years later, the Senate is now considering an alternative system for all traditional public and charter schools.

The bailout law included “self-fulfilling” language requiring Detroit to use a statewide system if enacted, said Rep. Tim Kelly, a Saginaw Township Republican who sponsored the new A-F legislation.

Kelly said he got a status update on the Detroit system last month but did not seek direct input from the city officials as he developed the new statewide plan. He has not yet seen the Detroit system, which Vitti had planned to unveil in late December.

“It’d be interesting to see how they compare,” Kelly said. “I can tell you some of the people that wrote our bill had concerns with what Detroit was doing” and that it was not going to be as “critical” as he hoped.

Vitti tore into the state proposal in a series of combative Twitter posts, likening recent Republican actions to an “autocracy” while urging the Legislature and lame-duck Gov. Rick Snyder to “listen to educators and parents” about “how this bill was wrong in process and product.”

“Putting aside politics and political parties, the accountability system proposed in the House, even if passed, will not improve student performance or practice,” Vitti wrote. “It will be another car on a long train of education reform blunders” in Michigan.

In a Thursday afternoon interview, Vitti said he plans to continue development of Detroit's own grading system, despite the House bill.

A vote to approve Detroit's grading system, by the Community Education Commission, which includes Vitti, charter school leaders, union officials and parents, is expected sometime next week or immediately after the first of year, Vitti said.

"I want an accountability system. I want an A-F system. I think it will change practice," he said.."We are going to get it up and running and grade our schools as the state tries to get their act together."

Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, said the revised legislation would empower the state Department of Education to create an A-F letter grade system that could still “align” with the Detroit version.

"We've spent several years (on the A-F proposal) getting feedback and engagement from stakeholders and other parties, including the traditional school community," he said. "Our goal has been one single accountability system."

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

“Schools, all of our districts, are state entities, and it’s pretty hard to have a meaningful accountability system when there’s multiple ways of being scored,” he added.

Under the revised proposal, Michigan would not give schools a cumulative grade but instead hand 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.

Legislators scrapped a proposed commission that critics feared would operate as a “shadow” state board of education.

Instead, the Michigan Department of Education would develop the school grading system but submit it to a temporary “peer review panel.” Because the law would not take effect for 90 days, Democratic Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer would appoint three members to the panel, and GOP legislative leaders would appoint two others.

The narrow 56-53 vote on the scaled-back school accountability measure capped a 17-hour day in the lame-duck session as GOP leaders worked to round up votes for the plan.

“Aside from some hyperbole and hysteria on the left, I think this is a good thing for Michigan,” Kelly said. “I think it’ll help not only parents, but it will also help schools identify their weaknesses.”

Kelly said finding enough votes to pass the long-debated bill was a “heavy lift.” State Rep. Sherry Gay Dagnogo, a Detroit Democrat who opposed the measure, compared the daylong process to “waterboarding.”

“This won’t improve literacy rates or test scores,” Dagnogo said in a fiery floor speech. “This legislation does nothing more than provide an avenue for the likes of the DeVos family to push their agenda to eviscerate public education in our state, paving the way for privatized for-profit education.”

Snyder has long pushed for an A-F system and is expected to sign the measure before leaving office if the Senate approves a form he is comfortable with. Critics, including the Michigan Education Association and the State Board of Education, have fought the effort nearly as long.

While 17 other states have adopted A-F letter grade systems to measure their schools, none of those states are in the top five for performance, said Rep. Christine Greig, D-Farmington Hills.

“We are failing our children, we are failing our teachers by adopting this model that doesn’t work,” Greig said.

But many of the other states that have A-F systems adopted them because they were already struggling, Kelly countered.

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is an ardent school choice supporter and charter school supporter. While her powerful West Michigan family “has been supportive of like measures,” Kelly denied any undue influence on the legislative process.

“This idea that (legislators) come here as a blank slate and lobbyists just write on you, it’s just absolutely ridiculous,” he said. “Whether it’s the DeVoses or whatever. Does the DeVoses have any different influence than the MEA on their side?”

Lawmakers required Detroit’s public school district to create its own A-F letter grade system as part of a $617 million state bailout in 2016. The city is expected to roll out the system for traditional and charter schools in the near future.

Separately, Michigan Department of Education launched a new “parent dashboard” in January that provides parents with more data about schools across the state. The A-F system would be the state’s third school performance rating system since 2012, said Rep. Kristy Pagan, D-Canton Township.

“This is sending a mixed message to parents, students and educators,” she said. “These actions cause chaos in our school system and force our teachers to over-emphasize test scores.”

Staff Writer Jennifer Chambers contributed