Lame-duck laws could impact schools

Steven Cook

Many lame-duck legislative sessions have been just that — lame — and unproductive, with no substantive legislation even considered. Some lame-duck sessions have been used to move politically-volatile legislation in the hopes that, with the elections over and the holidays approaching, fewer citizens are paying attention to government activities.

The current lame-duck session of the Legislature could be different, especially in terms of education legislation.

One reform being considered is a statewide system to evaluate teachers and administrators — an idea that has been discussed for years, both in the Legislature and in the education community.

No one denies the fact that the current process is deeply flawed. Now, there is real momentum to fix the problem. State Reps. Adam Zemke of Ann Arbor and Margaret O’Brien of Portage have worked together to create a solution that would greatly improve the present system and improve classroom instruction across the state. House Bills 5223 and 5224 would require professional development for teachers, classroom evaluation by principals and reduce the impact of standardized testing on teacher evaluations. The legislation doesn’t just talk about the importance of professional development for teachers, it funds it — with $15 million next year. The fact that Zemke, a Democrat, and O’Brien, a Republican, are the sponsors of this legislation is proof that education reform is both good policy and good politics for both parties.

Another issue is charter school reform. Following news reports uncovering serious problems in Michigan charter schools, a number of bills have been introduced to correct those failings. The package of bills, introduced by State Rep. Sarah Roberts, D-St. Clair Shores, would increase financial reporting requirements and place a moratorium on opening new charter schools. The reports revealed that the for-profit charter school industry is fraught with wasteful spending, conflicts of interest and poor academic performance.

Even though there are legislators on both sides of the aisle who believe reform is needed, the legislation faces difficulty winning approval. The charter school industry has waged a media and lobbying campaign to fight any additional oversight measures. Legislators should ignore those lobbying efforts.

A third education measure before the lame-duck legislature would result in as many as 32,000 third-graders being held back as a result of their reading scores. This approach to ensuring all third-graders are proficient in reading is opposed by all education groups, including those representing teachers, school boards and school administrators. However, there are amendments to the legislation which would address the actual problem by putting students on a Reading Improvement Plan, instead of just punishing them. Ultimately, the solution to the problem is to identify students with reading difficulties early — long before they reach third grade — and giving them (and their parents) the specialized help they need to succeed.

The Senate opened the lame-duck session by passing a package of bills to raise revenue dedicated to repairing Michigan’s crumbling roads — proving that, with a bipartisan approach to problem solving, the lame duck legislative session does not have to be, well, lame. Passage of real education reform measures to improve teacher and administrator evaluations, regulate Michigan’s charter school industry and help third graders achieve reading proficiency would prove that this lame duck can fly.

Steven Cook is president of the Michigan Education Association.

Labor Voices

Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers President Dennis Williams, Teamsters President James Hoffa, Michigan AFL-CIO President Karla Swift and Michigan Education Association President Steven Cook.