Does Michigan House plan promote 'local control' or 'parallel' school system?

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News
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The Michigan Department of Education confirmed on Monday it approved a preparation and certification program by Teachers of Tomorrow, which allows the company to begin offering potential educators a license through the Michigan Alternative Route to Interim Teacher Certification.

Lansing — A Michigan House plan to create public "innovative" school districts exempt from many state rules is being promoted as the ultimate vision of "local control," while critics argue it would establish a parallel system of schools free from state oversight.

The innovative districts would advocate “competency-based education” free from state-required curriculum, seat time and teaching style. School boards could apply for an entire public innovative district or an individual public innovative school.

The legislation removes “the shackles” dictating how schools are operated, said bill sponsor Tim Kelly, R-Saginaw, who chairs a House subcommittee on school aid.

A new oversight commission would handle the innovative districts, distancing them from the purview of the state Department of Education and State Board of Education. The  Education Accountability Policy Commission would consist of 13 unpaid appointees representing the state superintendent, business sectors, and education-related nonprofits and associations.

“It’s as local control as you can get,” Kelly said. “It’s basically telling a community, you operate the schools in the way that best serves your students.”

The Michigan Education Association, Michigan Association of School Boards and the state Association of Superintendents and Administrators oppose the legislation.  

If there are problems with the waiver system, improvements could be discussed, but Kelly's legislation "throws the baby out with the bath water," said Peter Spadafore, associate executive director for government relations for the Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators. 

"These are really dramatic shifts in how the education system works in Michigan and it's an attempt to kind of create a parallel system to the Department of Education," Spadafore said.

Some districts, such as Kenowa Hills Public Schools in Grand Rapids, already are operating essentially as innovative districts and spoke at a hearing in favor of the legislation. But Kelly’s bill would cement the option and create the commission.

“Waiver after waiver, year after year, is requested from the Michigan Department of Ed,” Kelly said at a September hearing on the bills. “I’m kind of tired of seeing these schools go through this ‘Mother, may I?’ process every year.”

Under the Michigan Constitution, the elected State Board of Education is charged with the “leadership and general supervision over all public education,” except for public universities and colleges.

But Kelly argued the proposed commission is a proper oversight body.

“It doesn’t replace the State Board of Ed or anything,” he said.

Under Kelly’s bills, the new school districts must commit to “any time, any place, any way, any pace” learning, prove community interest in the program, and specify how student performance would be evaluated, measured and reported.

“Pupil competencies” would be used as a basis for credit rather than instructional hours and each student would require a mentor. A shift in emphasis from seat time to actual learning is one of the hallmarks of the legislation, Kelly said.

“We graduate these kids every day because they’ve sat in that seat long enough,” he said. “Whether or not they learn anything is immaterial. …We’re trying to get away from time as a constant and learning should be the constant.”

The program implemented at Kenowa Hills schools emphasized college and career-ready standards, customized instruction, varied pace, evidence-based education and access to learning objectives and assessment results for students and parents, school leaders testified in September.

“What we found is the traditional system didn’t align with our stakeholder beliefs so it was our quest to implement a system that reflected these beliefs,” said district Superintendent Gerald Hopkins.

Students could transfer to a traditional school district before the start of a school year if they didn't want to stay in the innovative district.

If approved, school districts would become public innovative districts the school year after approval and operate as such for three years, after which the district could seek renewal.

Getting renewed status would require districts to prove the school met its initial goals, improved its course completion rate and met state assessment standards or alternative assessment standards that comply with the Every Student Succeeds Act.

The oversight commission also would be involved in Kelly’s proposed A-F grading system for schools, which would rate schools based on students' proficiency and growth in math and English as well graduation, absentee and participation rates. 

The assessment criteria would be developed by the commission and administered by the Department of Education. The commission would be responsible for developing "accountability measures" for the lowest-ranked schools. 

Kelly said he’ hopes his legislation will get approved before the end of the year, “because it’s not going to get any traction the next four years,” a reference to Democratic Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer.

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