Republican bills would snatch power over Michigan schools from Democrats

Republicans are rushing to keep control of schools before Democrats take over the Governor’s office and the State Board of Education.

Update: Michigan House passes A-to-F school grades but nixes new commission​
Update: Michigan Republicans advance bills on campaign finance, voting, education
Dec. 21: That's a wrap! What bills passed, died in Michigan lame duck for the ages
Related: See what Michigan lame-duck bills we're tracking

Republicans are working to rein in power over Michigan’s public schools from an incoming Democrat governor and before a Democrat majority is seated on the State Board of Education.

Bills now being considered in the Michigan House of Representatives during the frantic lame-duck legislative session would create a commission largely appointed by Republicans that would have broad authority over schools. In essence, it would serve as a shadow State Board of Education that would not be accountable to the incoming governor, the elected State Board of Education or the state Department of Education.

And, apparently, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder is all in on stacking the commission with his appointees before his Democratic successor takes office.

The bills have flown under the radar in Lansing, with much of the media attention focused on Republican bills aimed at gutting minimum wage and paid sick leave laws and diluting the authority of incoming Democrats Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer, Secretary of State-elect Jocelyn Benson and Attorney General-elect Dana Nessel.

Related: Michigan power grabs, pipelines and pot: What we’re tracking in lame duck

If passed, the new commission would almost certainly have a huge impact on K-12 education in Michigan ‒ from which schools are closed, to which would get extra money and how much classroom instruction students receive.

“These bills basically strip the next governor of the ability to reform education,” said a person intimately involved in negotiations over the bills who asked not to be identified because he works with both parties. “That’s why we’re jumping up and down over this. It’s such a complete power steal from Whitmer that no one should be participating in this.”

The sponsor of the bills, term-limited Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Saginaw, doesn’t shy away from the power-grabbing implications of the legislation. Michigan schools are flailing, as measured by standardized tests, and the State Board of Education and the Department of Education haven’t succeeded in turning the state’s K-12 system around.

“The state board is not doing their jobs,” Kelly said. “It’s time to move forward.”

The State Board of Education, shown here from several years ago, could lose some of its power under bills now being considered in the Legislature.

Whitmer appears ready to fight the effort to hobble her education reform plans. “The Governor-elect remains steadfast in her commitment to ensuring every Michigan child has access to high quality education, and opposes any actions that would impede her authority to address those issues starting Jan. 1,” Michelle Grinnell, communications manager for Whitmer’s transition team, said in a statement released to Bridge.

A member of the State Board of Education is already threatening a lawsuit if the bills pass, and a leading Democrat on the House Education Reform Committee calls the effort “scary.”

The effort to create a new education commission is tucked into Republican-backed education reform efforts. House Bill 5526 would create an A-to-F grading system for public schools. House Bills 6314 and 6315 would create Public Innovation Districts that wouldn’t have to comply with state regulations on classroom hours of instruction.

Related: Michigan may soon rank schools A-to-F. Will it help? Nobody knows

The reform bills are unrelated, but each mandates creation of a 13-member Education Accountability Policy Commission that would have broad power over schools. The commission would, for instance, determine the fate of schools that earn an A or an F. (Broadly speaking, Republicans have urged the closure or reduction of funds for low-performing schools while Democrats have pushed for more investment in struggling schools, which often are filled with low-income students who need more academic support.)

Under the Kelly bills, the proposed commission would also determine just how far “public innovation districts” can stray from class-time regulations mandated for traditional public schools. The bill is meant to allow schools more freedom in how they approach education ‒ allowing, for example, students to get credit for internships that might otherwise keep them from meeting state requirements for the number of hours they must be in class.  

The proposed commission would create policy, and MDE would implement its decisions, according to language of House Bill 5526.

Kelly, the bills’ sponsor, is a longtime critic of the state Department of Education and the State Board of Education.

He admitted in an interview with Bridge that the point of the commission is to take away some control of education from the elected and constitutionally mandated State Board of Education. Kelly has tried to eliminate the state board in the past but failed. These bills would instead create a “parallel” group that the Legislature could imbue with authority on education issues, Kelly said.

Kelly, who is term-limited, said he could imagine future legislatures giving more and more authority over education to the commission.

Republicans hope to stack the commission with GOP appointees before Democrats take charge of the Governor’s office and the State Board in January, according to several people involved in the legislative battle. The board now has an even 4-4 partisan split, with co-presidents from each party; in January, that changes to a 6-2 Democratic majority.  

Of the 13 members on the proposed commission, seven would be appointed by the governor to serve four-year terms, effectively giving the governor majority control of the commission. The Speaker of the House and the Senate Majority Leader, who are also currently Republicans,  would each get to appoint one member to the commission, with the remaining four members appointed by the state superintendent of schools.  

Should Republican Gov. Rick Snyder make the appointments before he leaves office Dec. 31, he would be sticking Democratic successor Whitmer with his picks through the entirety of her four-year term, locking Whitmer out of shaping a commission with broad authority over school accountability.

By most measures, Michigan ranks in the bottom third of states in educational performance, a record that has remained fairly consistent over the past eight years in which Republicans have controlled the governor’s office and both chambers of the legislature. Improving schools is key to improving the Michigan economy, and Whitmer made education one of the focal points of her campaign.

Ari Adler, director of communications for Snyder, said that if one or both of the bills pass, Snyder will in fact appoint his seven commissioners.

“It will go through our usual appointment process, (but) he would” appoint the members to the education commission, Adler said. “The governor is the governor until the end of the year. It’s a commission that is being formed on an issue on which he’s been working for years.”

Grabbing power away from the new Democratic administration “is the whole plan,” said Adam Zemke, D-Ann Arbor, who serves on the House Education Reform Committee. “There are three weeks left in his (Snyder’s) term. And he’d be filling positions that would be filled through the end of Whitmer’s first term. It’s hard to argue you’re not doing it to take power away from the next individual.”

A commission with power over school accountability would look very different under the control of Republicans versus Democrats. A progressive commission would likely push for additional money to failing schools; a conservative commission might give bonuses to schools with high standardized test scores, and close schools with low marks, as Bill Schuette, the losing Republican candidate for governor, proposed during his campaign.

“The commission could shut down a whole host of schools across the state, and most citizens are going to blame the governor when in reality the next governor had no control over it,” Zemke said. “An unelected body that doesn’t report to the executive is … quite scary.”

Brian Gutman, communications director for Education Trust-Midwest, a nonprofit education reform group, said that if the bills pass, Snyder should allow the incoming governor to appoint members of the commission.

“The will of Michiganders is clear, and vacancies on education boards and commissions should be filled by Governor Whitmer and legislative leadership once they take office in January,” Gutman said. “Education is too critical an issue to be overrun by partisan politics. The central question that Michigan lawmakers should be asking on pending legislation is whether it serves the needs of students and puts Michigan on a path toward becoming a top 10 education state.”

Board of Education member Tom McMillin, a Republican and former state representative, said the state board spends time every month reviewing the state’s lowest-performing schools, looking for ways to improve student learning.

That authority would reside  with the commission, under one of the bills being considered.

“If this commission is deeming what can and cannot be taught in Michigan, it’s taking away part of the constitutional authority of the board,” McMillin said. “They’re setting themselves up for a lawsuit.”

The Republican bills advanced out of the House Education Reform committee and are awaiting a vote on the floor. If they pass in the House, they would need to also pass the Senate and be signed by Snyder to become law.

Votes on the bills are being held up because, as of Tuesday, Republicans hadn’t rounded up enough support for them yet to pass, Zemke said.

“It’s going to be tight,” Zemke said.

Casandra Ulbrich, Democratic co-president of the state board, blasted the bills as a GOP attempt to usurp power from incoming Democrats.

“After a failed attempt to outright eliminate the publicly-elected State Board of Education, some members of the Legislature are now using the lame duck session to create a ‘commission’ staffed with GOP appointees that will assume many of the powers of the SBE,” Ulbrich said. “This is a blatant power grab and needs to be rejected. 

“Every voter in this state should be outraged by what is happening in Lansing right now.”

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Jim tomlinson
Tue, 12/04/2018 - 8:27pm

How can this be legal? Ethics are thrown out the window once again. I can never vote for republican again

Wed, 12/05/2018 - 9:52am

Republicans in other states have doen this BS and the democrates just took it to court and all their anti-0American laws were tost out!!! We can hope that Snyder does not sign them!!

William Clark
Thu, 12/06/2018 - 10:13am

Please contact Governor Snyder as soon as possible and urge him to not sign bills allowing Republicans to 'snatch' control of the State schools away from Democrats. No good can come from these lame-duck efforts, and much mischief is possible.

Mon, 12/17/2018 - 3:01am

You can add comments to cells. When a cell has a comment, an indicator appears in the corner of the cell. When you rest the pointer on the cell, the comment appears.

John Q. Public
Tue, 12/04/2018 - 8:49pm

Gee, I can hardly wait for the next round of columns lamenting how and wondering why we can't get along with our political adversaries. These "leaders" are just human scum. They have no respect for anything or anyone but their own Machiavellian ambitions, thus don't deserve any respect from voters.

Let's see if the judiciary has the guts to say the legislature and executive can't appropriate powers constitutionally reserved for an independently elected body.

Tue, 12/04/2018 - 9:46pm

This is a result of safely gerrymandered districts for the GOP which allows legislators to act in a hyper partisan and devious manner without the fear of any consequences at election time. It is why they control a significant majority of seat while receiving almost the same number of votes a Dems statewide. It is what resulted in Mr. Bentivolio going to the US House for one term. It is disgraceful, and it does not bode well for the future of our democracy as we know it. If the will of the voters is ignored or reversed through political chicanery, and the voters do not rise up in mass opposition and protest; then it will be the beginning of the end of the American form of democracy.

Joan M McComber
Wed, 12/05/2018 - 1:10am

This is just one more power grab by disgruntled Republicans who refuse to trust the will of the people. Our children need to know the state's leaders want them to receive as great an education as possible. With the GOP in charge of the legislature, that will never happen. And, instead of working with the incoming Board of Education, they would rather vote to usurp their ability to create great policy. What a loss for our students if this bill passes.

Chuck Fellows
Wed, 12/05/2018 - 6:55am

My response to the House Education Committee. You can go on the record too at

"Grading systems, test score targets and subjective determination of “failing” are evaluation systems that have repeatedly failed to produce the desired result, improvement in learning.

The foundational data for determining an alphabetic grade are scores from standardized forms of testing which produce meaningless results since they ignore the context which produced the score. Ask your CEPI experts what this statement means “Data absent context is meaningless.” Refer to the work of Chambers, Shewhart and Deming and insist they respond to you in plain language, not statistical gobbledygook.

The fundamental fault with ranking and rating systems based upon target values, not the actual performance of a system, is that the target value can be achieved three fundamental ways; improvement of the process, distortion of the data, or distortion of the process. The first is the desired outcome, the latter two are that most commonly used. (“Understanding Variation”. Donald Wheeler. SPC Press, Pp 20)

In order to receive federal funding (10% of the education revenue on average) Michigan must comply with ESSA. ESSA anticipates a statewide accountability system. We already have one, it is our teachers.

I realize viewing each child as unique, believing that every child already knows how to learn and that children must be allowed to be responsible for their own learning are concepts foreign to traditional education professionals. As is the willingness to trust the real professionals, the teachers, to insure each child is learning. "

Now we have an attempt to create a Commission that will repeat the errors of the past because their ideology and ignorance condemns them to blindly repeat the past harming our children for life in the process.

Paul Jordan
Wed, 12/05/2018 - 7:11am

These power-focused politicians obviously can't see the writing on the wall. The fact that Propositions 2 & 3 passed with overwhelming non-partisan majorities should signal to them that Michigan's voters want to see "the will of the people" prevail. Despite this, they are still laser-focused on preserving their own power regardless of the People's will.
This hyper partisan lame duck session is Snyder's last chance to act honorably. No matter what, of course, his political career is over but vetoing these sorts of anti-democratic bills is his last chance to leave something of a positive legacy.

Wed, 12/05/2018 - 8:15am

I don't care change needs to happen in our schools and this article is pretty bias for the past few years change that has been needed has been fought against and the way of teaching and now identity politics messing with kids even more. Can't put this all on republican party when most of what is happening to our schools were democratically led. Any change to take control away from the legislation I'm for.

Wed, 12/05/2018 - 11:27am

If the GOP has controlled the governorship and both houses of the legislature for the past eight years, they most certainly must own Michigan’s Education failures. This commission will double down on their failed policies. Michigan deserves better and Michigan voters said as much in November.

Wed, 12/05/2018 - 9:43am

I have suggested to all my adult children who have children in Michigan Public schools to leave this state. It will be generations before any of this is fixed. Partisanship is destroying our state. There have not been any adults in the room for quite some time. BIG BUSINESS will reign until the next financial collapse which is right around the corner.

Wed, 12/05/2018 - 8:03pm

Bernadette, not to sound mean here but, you've been carrying on like this for years, so why do you stay? If your crowd were to take power and put their dreams to reality I'd be gone. Life is too short.

Wed, 12/05/2018 - 10:03am

Wow. After eight years of Republican control of the administrative and legislative branches has done nothing to improve schools, they want to pull this? This sort of myopic political gamesmanship is precisely why voters voted Democratic leadership in -- and voted to constrain their gerrymandering. Look forward to losing it all in coming elections, dirty tricksters.

Wed, 12/05/2018 - 11:45am

Tim Kelly has been so bad for this state. Kelly, Pavlov, Meekhof, Leonard, and all of their cohorts and predecessors from the Republican Party have damaged this state in ways that will last for decades.

Shame on the idiotic voters who have voted for these guys and the Republicans for the past 30+ years.

Craig Reynolds
Wed, 12/05/2018 - 4:35pm

Amusing that such actions in the Legislature always refer to "failing schools", like it's a problem with the water pipes in a building or something. So what happens when that "failing school" building is closed? Where do the flesh-and-blood students go for their statutory education? If these kids haven't learned in the "failing" building, how is it justified that they will instead learn with their relocation into a "successful" building? Because there's always hot water? Or is all this another Republican maneuver to artificially create a demand for charter schools - whose buildings, having no experience to rate, would start out with a big, fat Zero?

Peter Eckstein
Wed, 12/05/2018 - 8:15pm

Amend the state constitution to abolish lame duck sessions. Let newly elected legislators take office upon certification, and forbid the legislature from meeting between election day and certification.

Wed, 12/05/2018 - 11:20pm

I think this is not allowed by the state constitution. ArtIII section2 The powers of government are divided into three branches: legislative, executive and judicial. No person exercising powers of one branch shall exercise powers properly belonging to another branch except as expressly provided in this constitution.

Sun, 12/09/2018 - 7:53am

My vision for Public Education Reform in Michigan would entail the Pure Michigan Public Schools Act (PMPSA), the Pure Michigan Schools Student Engagement Act (PMSSEA) and the Pure Michigan Schools Maintenance and Construction Act (PMSMCA). Public Education in the State of Michigan has been plagued with indoctrination for the last 35+ years and the timing is right for the Governor and the State School Board to select a non-traditional candidate who will work with both/all parties to make Michigan a model for education reform, someone who will increase in State oversight, resolve foundation allowance disparity, define a basic education, eliminate loopholes, extend Pre-K programming, improve test scores, reward, take-away, increase collaboration and eliminate the duplication of services .

Pure Michigan Public Schools Act

o Create tier I State funding

o Define programming required to provide a basic education and move ancillary programming to the PMSSEA

o Cap retirement (final average compensation) for Superintendents, administrators, teachers and support staff based upon the district membership group code

o Cap retirement years of service for Superintendents, Administrators, Teachers and Support Staff

o Cap personal time off and banked hours/days for Superintendents, Administrators, Teachers and Support Staff

o Create a four week July break for teachers, remaining breaks will be defined by the district membership group code

o Elimination of double dipping and retire/rehire

o Define statewide school year as August 1st through June 30th and PMPSA hours of instruction

o Increase days of instruction to 210 days and hours of instruction to 1,200 hours

Increase transparency to include college and professional tickets, food, lodging and conferences registration fees

o Define career paths and provide career specific programming

o If undergraduate testing determines that a high school graduate is required to take remedial courses the K-12 school district will pay for that class

o Eliminate AP/IB programming and provide college level opportunities for students with special skill sets

o Increase reporting requirements

o Create a school of choice fee to cover community infrastructure costs ($1,500)

o Kindergarten and GSRP will become essential courses

o Require districts to cut utility consumption by 15% without infrastructure improvements

o Best practices only hit the surface when it comes to school reform and for local school districts to succeed the state will again have to step in and take a critical leadership role by adding additional requirements that will simplify and streamline school operations for local school boards and administrators

Pure Michigan Schools Student Engagement Act

o Tier II State Funding + Local Funding

o Define non-essential programming that local school boards will approve for their community: Art, Music, Career Training Education, Culinary Arts, Computer Aide d Design, Computer Aided Manufacturing, Dentistry, Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and the Marshall Plan

o Create a modified retirement system for PMSSEA Administrators, teachers and support staff

o Cap retirement (final average compensation) for PMSSEA non-essential, administrators, teachers and support staff based upon the district membership group code

o Cap retirement years of service for PMSSEA non-essential, Administrators, Teachers and Support Staff

o Cap personal time off and banked hours/days for PSSEA non-essential, Administrators, Teachers and Support Staff

o Create a two week July break for PMSSEA non-essential teachers, remaining breaks will be defined by the district

o Define the statewide non-essential school year as October through September and PMSSEA hours of instruction

o Increase days of instruction to 210 days and hours of instruction to 1,200 hours

o If a district is failing to provide a basic education the state will now have a mechanism in place to reduce funding for ancillary programs in that district and ultimately make the community responsible for the success or demise of that district

o Provide wraparound services and evening classes for interested students in grades 7-12

o Funding for gender neutral Scouting programs, Club Sports, Culinary programs and Little League

o A school board must annually approve PMSSEA positions

Pure Michigan Schools Maintenance and Construction Act

o Tier III State Funding + Local Funding

o State oversight of construction documents and specifications

o Cookie cutter floor plans for new schools

o Define State funded capital improvements: roofs, windows, boilers and tuck pointing

o Building maintenance responsibilities will remain in house and each district will be capped at no more than one FTE per 150,000 sf with no more than 15% of staff working an AM shift, balance working evening when kids are not in school

o Custodial – Every building with more than 15,000 sf and at least 220 students must have one custodial porter from 11am to 7pm on school days

o Food service will be responsible for cafeteria cleaning and cleaning emergencies until swing shift arrives

o Operations and maintenance cannot exceed 8% of a districts annual budget and costs must be categorized into mandated and un-mandated activities

Mon, 12/10/2018 - 10:17am

Ken, appreciate the thought you have given to education reform. Shortening the summer break would eliminate all if the "refresher " efforts in the fall, but this should come with adequate salary increases to attract students to the teaching profession. I can't understand why the Republicans are so intent on keeping their constituents poor and stupid.

Mon, 12/10/2018 - 9:17am

There they go again. Selfish ego---- Republicans.

Mon, 12/10/2018 - 3:34pm

Really bad headline - not snatching power from Democrats...from VOTERS!

James Bell
Wed, 12/12/2018 - 7:19am

The quoted language of the Michigan Constitution would have placed this entire article in perspective. This new law is blatantly unconstitutional and written by people who are either ignorant of what the Constitution says or willfully believe themselves above the law. " Leadership and general supervision over all public education, including adult education and instructional programs in state institutions, except as to institutions of higher education granting baccalaureate degrees, is vested in a state board of education. It shall serve as the general planning and coordinating body for all public education, including higher education, and shall advise the legislature as to the financial requirements in connection therewith."

Mon, 12/17/2018 - 3:02am

Democrats have long been outnumbered in the Michigan House and Senate. They re d0 poised to make gains, though capturing a majority in both chambers for the first time in 34 years would be tough. Republicans have benefited for years because they controlled how districts were drawn after the 2010 census. Republicans hold majorities of 63-46 in the House and 27-10 in the Senate, with one Democratic-leaning seat in each chamber currently vacant. In case of a tie in the state Senate, the newly elected lieutenant governor who presides over the chamber would tip the balance.