Michigan House sends 'monumental' school plan to Whitmer

Beth LeBlanc Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — The Michigan House voted Monday to send bills that allow school districts to decide whether to reopen to in-person instruction amid the COVID-19 pandemic to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who is expected to sign them despite opposition from some administrators.

The bills require districts to reconfirm their plans on whether to use in-person instruction, virtual learning or some combination every 30 days. They also impose requirements for benchmark testing and tracking "interaction rates" between teachers and students who do online learning.

The main bill in the package, which was negotiated by GOP legislative leaders and Whitmer, a Democrat, passed with bipartisan support, 73-33. Eight of the no votes came from Republicans.

House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, labeled the legislation "monumental."

Brenda Ryan, who teaches in Detroit, participates in a demonstration outside the Michigan Capitol on Saturday, Aug. 15, 2020.

The debate leading up to Monday's votes prompted state Rep. Pamela Hornberger, R-Chesterfield Township, to criticize superintendents and education groups who opposed the bills. Hornberger, who chairs the House Education Committee, said education leaders unwilling to put students and families first "need to get out of the way."

"If they feel this accountability measure put in place during this time of pandemic is too much to do, too much work, you need to do your job," she said.

But school leaders have said they are concerned about funding uncertainty, benchmark assessments and accountability measures that will put additional requirements on them as they also try to deal with an unprecedented school year during COVID-19.

The Michigan Association of School Boards and the Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators asked lawmakers on Friday to delay considering the proposals to allow for more feedback. For many districts, the first day of class is less than four weeks away.

The bills essentially tie 75% of schools' enrollment counts to the previous year amid fears that attendance could drop significantly this year. Many districts were hoping that their counts, which determine their funding levels, would be tied 100% to last school year's levels.

Michigan State Rep. Pamela Hornberger, R-Chesterfield Township

"If the kids in Michigan are your priority, schools in Michigan should have been held harmless," Troy school Superintendent Richard Machesky argued Saturday.

Nikolai Vitti, the superintendent in Detroit, tweeted that lawmakers "simply dumped everything on boards and superintendents." A former teacher, Rep. Matt Koleszar, D-Plymouth, was among the no votes, saying the plan "creates new challenges for school districts in an already historically challenging time."

The deal was negotiated with Whitmer, announced Friday night and adopted by the GOP-led Senate in a rare Saturday session. The main bill passed the Senate 23-15. 

The plan requires benchmark assessments to gauge students' reading and math levels within nine weeks of the start of the school year and a requirement that school boards reconfirm the schools' learning plans on a monthly basis. 

Despite concerns from some teachers about any plan that allows schools to meet in person, the Michigan Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers supported the bills.

Launch Michigan, an education policy group that includes business, education, labor, philanthropy and civic leaders, also backed the bills.

"The bipartisan compromise negotiated by Governor Whitmer and legislative leaders to help reopen Michigan’s public schools safely is fair, reasonable and provides much-needed clarity for educators and families alike," Launch Michigan President Adam Zemke said.