Lawmakers, Whitmer reach education deal finalizing guidelines

Beth LeBlanc Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — The GOP-led Legislature and Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer reached a deal Friday on a package of bills that finalize the guidelines and rules school districts must observe as students begin classes in the coming weeks. 

The plan drew immediate criticism from some educators and groups, who criticized the agreement as a backroom deal made during a crucial planning period for a school year full of uncertainty. 

A one-page outline of the plan reviewed by The Detroit News late Friday night indicates the package establishes "parameters" to ensure teachers regularly "interface" with students. Noncompliance will disqualify a school for state funding. 

The package encourages districts to prioritize in-classroom instruction for kindergarten through fifth-grade students when safe, an apparent compromise that seems to address concerns from school groups about an early draft of the legislation that would have mandated in-person instruction for K-5.  

The legislation will require benchmark assessments to track students' performance in reading and mathematics and determine which students need more help. 

The deal also requires school districts to consult with their local health departments to develop district-specific plans. 

The complete agreed-upon package was not immediately available Friday night. But The Detroit News was able to review some draft legislation and a one-page summary of the package.

According to the draft, districts must track their "interaction rates" with students and report the rates at the monthly school board reconfirmation meetings. School districts must make their education plans and student, teacher interaction rates available on their websites. 

The draft also said school districts must administer benchmark exams, and the state plans to utilize data from the exams "to determine the loss of learning, if any, resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic."

The legislation seeks to combat school districts' fears about attendance in the upcoming year by tying 75% of their official enrollment figure to last school year before the pandemic hit. 

The legislation seeks to waive the normal hours and days requirement for instruction for the 2020-21 school year. But it says schools must provide instruction "that results in an amount of hours and days necessary to deliver the educational or course content" that would have normally been provided.

The package is expected to build upon Whitmer's June 30 executive order, addressing some areas that weren't detailed there, such as what counts as attendance and how to conduct student counts, which determine state funding distributions for school districts.

Whitmer released a joint statement with the majority and minority leaders late Friday that simply said: "Today, we reached a bipartisan deal that will give students, parents, educators and support staff much needed support, flexibility, and certainty as we approach the new school year. They deserve peace of mind about what the next few months will hold in store, and this legislation will provide it." 

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and House Speaker Lee Chatfield are pictured.

The agreement between the Legislature and Whitmer is expected to be approved during a rare Saturday Senate session and on Monday in the House. 

House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, said the agreement gives families "safe options, schools clear directions and local communities control."

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, said the bipartisan deal empowers "people who should be making decisions about education in this unprecedented year — parents, schools and health experts."

State Rep. Pamela Hornberger, R-Chesterfield Township, said the plan gives schools the freedom to choose whether to conduct hybrid instruction, solely online classes or in-person learning in consultation with local health departments. 

The plan also requires school boards to re-evaluate their districts' learning plans on a monthly basis through the 2020-21 school year. Public comment must be solicited at the meetings where the plan is reconfirmed, according to a draft of the legislation reviewed by The News.

"This plan accomplishes my two priorities: keeping kids safe and continuing to advance their education no matter the mode of instruction," said Hornberger, chairwoman for the House education committee. "I’m pleased we were able to come to this solution with the governor.”

The plan was not greeted with enthusiasm by Michigan school leaders. 

Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of the Detroit Public Schools Community District, said the plan will put "an enormous amount of political pressure on school boards" to offer face-to-face or online learning in monthly meetings amid expected budget cuts. 

"The hand washing will come with notions of 'local control,'" he said in a tweet Friday night.

Earlier Friday, three school associations urged the governor and Legislature to consider more input from education stakeholders and said the timing of the deal "could not have been worse."

"Announcing a plan and voting on it in the same 24-hour period, while also over the weekend, does not allow districts the opportunity to review it and/or weigh in," said a statement from the executive directors of the Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators, the Michigan Association of Intermediate School Administrators and the Michigan Association of School Boards.

Tri-County Alliance for Public Education Executive Director Robert McCann said the "backroom deal" was "hard to believe" and "beyond disappointing" because it undermined the work school districts have put into developing plans. 

"Educators have been asking for help from Lansing for months, only to be ignored until this 11th hour debacle that does more harm than good by putting significant obstacles in the path of those actually trying to focus on the needs of students," McCann said in a statement. 

Across the state, most school plans developed so far fall into three categories:

•100% online learning at home

•Two options: 100% face-to-face learning in school and 100% online learning available for all grades, K-12

•Limited in-person lessons and virtual learning for younger students in K-8 and 100% online for high school students

School plans reviewed by The News have relied on Whitmer’s Safe Start Plan, which grades the threat of the virus to regions of Michigan from phases 1-6, with the first phase being "uncontrolled growth" and the last being "post-pandemic." Districts indicate online learning for phases 1-3 and transition to in-person learning beginning with Phase 4.

The governor's return-to-learn plan allows each of the state's 544 traditional school districts and nearly 300 public school academies to develop, get approval for and have in place by Monday their own plans.

Those plans must fall within guidance the governor issued in late June that differs depending on which phase of the Safe Start Plan a certain region is in.

Currently, much of the state is in Phase 4, or "improving," with the exceptions of the Upper Peninsula and 17 counties in northern Michigan, which are in Phase 5, or "containing."