Michigan Senate gives subpoena power to education committee

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — The Michigan Senate voted along party lines Wednesday to grant its Education and Career Readiness Committee the ability to issue subpoenas amid an ongoing debate about online learning in the era of COVID-19.

The GOP-controlled Senate has the ability to give any of its committees subpoena power through an adopted resolution. However, the capability is usually reserved for the Oversight Committee, which was also granted subpoena power through the new resolution. The proposal passed in a 20-15 vote.

In an interview, Senate Education Chairwoman Lana Theis, R-Brighton, said she has no plans for future subpoenas. But she contended that Michigan's education system is under a level of strain that it hasn't seen before and students are losing interest in school. 

Sen. Lana Theis, R-Brighton, serves Michigan's 22nd State Senate District.

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"It is my hope that we never have to use it, frankly," Theis said. "To the extent, it might be necessary, I believe it is a good idea."

A review of state records shows it's been more than a decade since the House or Senate education committees were granted the power to issue subpoenas through an adopted resolution. The last time was during the 2003-2004 session when the House Education Committee was specifically probing claims of financial wrongdoing at the Oakland County Intermediate School District.

On Wednesday, Theis also announced that she and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, were requesting — but not subpoenaing — data from the Michigan Department of Education so the committee could analyze "student academic growth and decline" and "compare student outcomes on a classroom-by-classroom basis."

The department has until Tuesday to provide the requested information to the committee, according to a press release.

Some in the education field voiced concerns Wednesday that subpoenas could be used for gathering testing data on students or to require officials appear before the committee. However, according to the resolution, the new subpoena power appears to focus on "state records and files."

Democrats opposed the resolution.

Sen. Dayna Polehanki, D-Livonia, the top Democrat on the education committee, said it was unclear what the intention of majority Republicans' is when it comes to using subpoenas.

Republican lawmakers have been calling for more in-person learning as Michigan's COVID-19 infections rates have declined in recent months. Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer had repeatedly encouraged, but not required, all school districts to at least offer face-to-face learning by Monday.

Whitmer said as of last week, 83% of Michigan's more than 800 districts were offering some in-person learning. About 97% of traditional districts planned to provide some level of in-person learning to students by Monday, according to state officials.

The Senate resolution also gave subpoena power to the Senate Oversight Committee. Senate Oversight Chairman Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, said he had no immediate plans for how his panel would use it.