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What Democratic control of Lansing will mean for Michigan schools

 Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on stage
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, easily won a second term on Tuesday. She will now have a Democratic majority in the House and Senate to work with on education policy.. (Bridge photo by Valaurian Waller)
  • Democrats will soon control the Michigan House, Senate and governor’s office 
  • The party’s longstanding priorities include higher teachers pay and getting more money to vulnerable school districts   
  • Democrats also have long called for more financial transparency for charter schools, which receive public funding

In the days after Democrats swept the Michigan governor's office and the state Legislature, a reality began to set in for public school advocates: Newfound power means they'll be able to accomplish key initiatives that have stalled during decades of Republican control.

Democrats now have a chance to follow through on their promises to overhaul school funding, repeal a law requiring struggling readers to be held back in third grade, require charter school financial transparency, expand early childhood education, provide teacher bonuses, and more.

Sponsor

The last time Democrats controlled both chambers along with the governor’s office, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer was 13 years old.

Since then – and particularly during the Snyder administration, when Republicans held the trifecta – Democrats have struggled to advance legislation and were unable to block GOP education reforms that lifted the cap on charter schools and created the third grade reading law.

Now, Whitmer has the power and support to make a deeper mark on Michigan schools.

“There are all kinds of discussions I don’t think anybody was expecting to have this morning until some of these election results started coming in,” Bob McCann, executive director of the K-12 Alliance of Michigan, which represents districts in Michigan’s most populous five counties, said Wednesday.

“We’re thinking boldly now about where we need to go in terms of actually helping teachers and schools. And the first step has got to be taking a look at some of the policies that are proving to be harmful,” such as the third grade reading retention law, he said.

Teachers, meanwhile, expect to have a greater role in developing education policy. 

“We are going to be able to have a seat at the table when they’re discussing policies that affect public school employees and students – and that will mean everything to educators across this state,” said Paula Herbart, president of the Michigan Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union.

Administrators say they are encouraged, as well.

“With the change in leadership, it’s time for big bold ideas that we haven’t been able to completely move forward,” said Daveda Colbert, superintendent of the Wayne County Regional Service Agency.

Here are some changes that could happen under Democratic control of Lansing:

A change in school funding formula

The school aid budget is likely to grow and the formula for funding schools could change in Whitmer’s second term.

Advocates want more state funding for students who are more expensive to educate, such as those with disabilities or who are English language learners.

“We have to find ways to fix Michigan’s funding system to make sure schools have the resources they need to meet actual costs,” McCann said. “That’s a big lift, but it’s something that has to get fixed.”

Detroit Public Schools Community District superintendent Nikolai Vitti is hopeful.

It’s important “to ensure sustained and recurring funding equity through a weighted student formula to fully fund special education,” he told Chalkbeat and Bridge in an email message Wednesday.

Literacy settlement payments for Detroit 

Two and a half years ago, Whitmer reached a $94.4 million settlement with Detroit families who said Michigan failed to provide their children with a basic education. She promised only to attempt to get the money from the Legislature every year for as long as she was governor.

She included the line item in three budget proposals but it never survived budget negotiations with Republican legislative leaders.

That might change with a Democratic legislature.

DPSCD Superintendent Vitti hopes so.

The money is owed to the district “to address the tragedy of emergency management,” he said in an email, referring to state control of the financially troubled district during the Snyder administration.  

Early childhood program expansion

Early childhood education has been a bipartisan priority, but Republicans haven’t been able to see eye-to-eye with Whitmer on how much to spend on it or how it should be delivered.

Whitmer slowly expanded the program during her first term and said in an interview last month she would work to do more if reelected.

This year, Whitmer proposed expanding the state’s free Great Start Readiness Program by allowing it to operate in smaller home-based settings instead of in classrooms of 16 children. Advocates said doing so would allow providers to use state funds while providing more access to high-quality preschool programs.

Senate Republicans refused to include the $5 million in their budget.

Whitmer could try again in the next budget cycle.

The program currently serves 4-year-olds from families who meet income eligibility requirements. Some program proponents want to remove eligibility requirements to provide the program to all children. 

“That’s another conversation we’d be happy to have,” McCann said. GSRP “is one of those things that is front and center in terms of student achievement. Getting them that early-on support gets them ready.”

Colbert of the Wayne County agency agreed, but said expansion should be gradual to account for staffing shortages.

“We can continue to make early childhood seats available, but if teachers and staff aren’t there to cover the classrooms, our efforts will fall flat.”

Third grade reading law could disappear

Whitmer has never been a fan of Republican Gov. Rick Snyder’s law that required third-graders to be held back a year if they are more than one grade level behind in reading. In reality, few students are held but because so many loopholes are built into the law, but Democrats along with state Superintendent Michael Rice and most teachers see retention as harmful.

“We would certainly be happy to see a discussion about repealing that and instead making sure third graders who aren’t reading get the help they need,” McCann said.

That’s a top priority for Dayna Polehanki, who is currently the ranking Democrat on the Senate Education Committee. 

“I personally am going to oversee the repeal of the retention piece, which would flunk third graders based on one test that they take,” Polehanki said in an interview. “Research shows that retention doesn’t work. It doesn’t help kids to read.”

Tudor Dixon, Whitmer’s Republican challenger, had promised to more strictly enforce the reading law and close loopholes that had allowed superintendents to waive the retention rule for the vast majority of students eligible for retention. 

Teacher bonuses are possible

Earlier this year, Whitmer proposed giving teachers $1.5 billion in bonuses over four years. The annual bonuses would start at $2,000 and grow to $4,000 by 2025. Her aim was to help mitigate staffing shortages.  

Republicans blocked the proposal, and even some proponents of retention bonuses questioned whether they should go to all teachers or be targeted on educators in shortage areas.

The proposal appears to have new life with Democrats in charge, said Bob Kefgen, lobbyist for the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals.

Polehanki said she also expects to reintroduce a wider strategy to address the educator shortage. It includes measures to fund professional development, reimburse student teachers for childcare, provide three years of mentorship for new teachers, and more. 

“We worked really hard on that package that was unfortunately ignored by the then-Republican majority, and we really look forward to giving some of those bills a hearing,” Polehanki said. 

Colbert hopes the Legislature will pass those and other measures that will make it easier for administrators in Wayne County and elsewhere to attract and retain teachers.

“In order to do this, we know that we need to look at incentives such as signing bonuses, possibly relocation stipends, and other ways in which to supplement salaries, and to make the field of education attractive in Michigan,” she said. 

Charter financial transparency rules may tighten

Democrats have been frustrated by the lack of financial transparency from charter schools run by for-profit management companies that are not subject to public disclosure laws, even though they receive more than $1 billion in public funds. 

Those schools typically aggregate most of their expenditures into a single line item for “purchased services,” making it impossible to know how much teachers are being paid, how much supplies costs, or which vendors are providing services. 

“We’re going to require charter schools – especially the for-profit charter schools – to open their books and show us what the taxpayer money has been going for,” Polehanki said. 

Tracie Mauriello covers state education policy for Chalkbeat Detroit and Bridge Michigan. Reach her at tmauriello@chalkbeat.org.

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