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Opinion: Education has changed to our benefit, but there is more to do

Tim Kelly

When I entered the Michigan Legislature in January of 2013, I was determined to stay away from issues related to education. Having served former Gov. John Engler as his education policy adviser in the mid to late 90's, I thought I had had my fill battling the education establishment over choice, charter schools, accountability, standards and other reforms we thought necessary to raise student achievement.

No sooner had I gotten there, however, I was appointed to the House Education Policy Committee and later that spring was tasked to chair a special subcommittee on the state's use of the Common Core standards. Before I knew it, I was right back where I left off, battling many of the same foes over the same issues we had fought over more than a decade earlier.

(CAPTION INFO)Photo of Alyssa Lilly(cq) in Mary Licata's 2nd grade class at Cherokee Elementary School in Clinton Township on Wednesday 9.21.11. Starting this fall, Michigan lawmakers have moved the states Count Day for school enrollment from late September to the first week of October. For the first time this year, the fall count on Oct. 5 will be used to calculate 90 percent of state per-pupil aid, instead of 75 percent as in past years, while the spring count in February/March will only be worth 10 percent instead of 25 percent. Delaying the fall count a few weeks is expected to help districts such as Detroit Public Schools, which traditionally has struggled to get students to show up early in the school year. But putting more weight on the fall count could hurt some districts financially. (David Coates/The  Detroit News)
FILE -- Da' Carie Redes, 7, and her fellow second grader classmates greet Superintendent Nikolai Vitti during his visit to their classroom Tuesday morning.  DPSCD Superintendent Nikolai Vitti visited Schulze Elementary School to greet students and staff on the first day of school Tuesday, September 4, 2018 in Detroit.

Fast forward to the current lame duck session that will cap my six-year career in the Michigan House of Representatives, where for the last four years I have presided over the House Appropriations Subcommittee on School Aid, and the House Education Reform Policy for the last two years. We still have some things to wrap up, like an A-F accountability system, teacher prep reform, and schools of innovation. 

What did we get right? What did we get wrong? Where do we go from here?

Although we negotiated the continued use of the current standards, we did start an unfortunate dismantling of our state assessment system that has continued to erode both trust and accountability.

Michigan has not been immune to the national obsession over testing, or the use of "high stakes" assessments. As a result, during his brief tenure as state superintendent, the late Brian Whiston began a march toward measuring student growth with popular local assessments rather than the state's MSTEP that measures proficiency to the standards.

This was largely a battle between Whiston, the State Board of Education, and his own department. But unfortunately the Michigan Legislature, including me, found ourselves in the middle of it, and it remains unresolved. Michigan's student testing regime still needs a thorough and serious overhaul.

On a more positive note, despite what you often hear in the media, Gov. Rick Snyder and the Republican majority in the Legislature increased School Aid spending by $2 billion over the past eight years. Despite this record funding, at least two adequacy studies over the last few years have concluded that Michigan should spend more.

While we have leveled the playing field between higher and lower funded districts, more work needs to be done. I would caution that should those increases come, however, they should be addressed to the individual students' needs, not blanket increases that would otherwise be lost or absorbed by the schools or districts they attend.

Michigan made tremendous strides in reclaiming the importance of career and technical education, successfully reversing a decades-long trend that sought to funnel everyone into a four-year baccalaureate degree. Thanks to several pieces of legislation over the last few years, more students will find additional pathways to higher paying jobs, without burdening themselves with large debt from student loans.

I'm most proud of our work surrounding early literacy and reading. We've made it mandatory that funds targeted for at-risk students be accompanied by the use and implementation of a Multi-Tiered System of Supports, a continuous improvement model and framework in which data-based problem solving and decision making are localized for maximum impact. We have identified inadequacies in our Great Start Readiness Program, Michigan's $250 million early childhood program, which should lead to better results in the near future.

The third-grade reading initiative kicks into high gear next school year and has already elevated the importance of reading on grade level and accelerated better reading instruction and materials. Michigan's economic future rests on our ability to ensure that all kids read well upon entering the fourth grade.

Going forward, the 100th Michigan Legislature will face a myriad of challenges. With slimmer Republican majorities in both the House and the Senate, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and her Democratic allies will likely seek to roll back reforms related to choice, including charter and cyber public schools.

Even with a friend in the executive office, the Legislature battled Snyder over cyber school and shared-time funding the last four budget cycles. Third-grade reading will also likely take a beating. The teachers unions and many in their public school coterie have never masked their disdain for retention, a likely scenario if students can't master reading. Again, Michigan cannot afford the deleterious effects of large numbers of kids who can't read well. 

I leave office with the same education philosophy as I entered: That all parents, regardless of their zip code, should have the same opportunities afforded their children that wealthy parents do. Money should be given to families directly so that they may purchase an education on the open market that is tailored to their own child's needs, whether that education is delivered publicly or privately.

My biggest regret is that even with a Republican governor and majorities in the Legislature we couldn't make progress in expanding parental choice.

Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Saginaw Township, is chair of the House Education Reform Committee.