To fix education in Michigan, GOP senators push to resurrect old ideas
- Michigan Senate Republicans say they want to restore some of the policies Democrats just eliminated or amended
- Democrats have a two-seat majority in the Senate
- Republicans want the state to create ‘scholarships’ to help students access education services
LANSING – Alarmed by reports of low student test scores, Republican leaders in the Michigan Senate laid out a legislative agenda on Thursday that they say will improve public education across the state.
Many are longstanding GOP priorities such as a law requiring schools to hold back third graders who struggle with reading. Some of the proposals were GOP-backed laws that Democrats changed last year after taking control of both legislative chambers for the first time in decades. Others won GOP legislative support in prior years but were vetoed by Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
The GOP remains in the minority in the Senate but, in a press conference Thursday, party legislative leaders expressed hope that their “MI Brighter Future Plan” could move forward. The plan calls for promoting teacher merit bonuses, holding public schools accountable with an A-F school rating system and giving parents money to pay for summer school or afterschool reading programs.
“Now this plan is not the silver bullet but is a substantial step forward in the right direction that will raise standards across our education system rather than removing them and provide more options and choices for our families here in Michigan,” said Senate Minority Leader Aric Nesbitt, R-Porter Township.
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The policies announced Thursday face long odds. Democrats have a two-vote advantage in the Senate and have taken strong positions in the past against most of the GOP proposals.
In the House, there is an even split between Democrats and Republicans but Democrats are expected to regain a majority later this spring after elections to fill two vacant seats.
To support their agenda, Republicans cited reports on student performance including that the state dropped in national reading rankings between 2019 and 2022. The GOP controlled the Legislature during those years.
“The test scores they are citing are based on policies they enacted,” House Education Committee Chair Matt Koleszar, D-Plymouth said.
The Republicans have not yet introduced bills related to their proposals but say they plan to soon.
The proposals include:
Restoring policies reversed by Democrats:
After the Democrats secured narrow majorities in both the House and Senate last year, they wiped out a number of education laws that had been enacted by Republicans in prior years.
Among them were a requirement for schools to hold students back in the third grade if they were more than a year behind in reading. Democrats also eliminated a rating system for schools that assigned them A-F grades based largely on student test scores. They changed teacher evaluations so that schools would not be required to base them as heavily on student test scores. And they expanded the list of topics teacher unions and their districts could bargain over.
Republicans want to see their policies restored.
“Setting the bar high includes strengthening our third-grade reading law rather than watering it down, again requiring student progress to be part of every teacher evaluation process and restoring the A-to-F grading scale that makes it so easy for parents to understand how their child's school is performing,” said Sen. John Damoose, R-Harbor Springs, minority vice chair of the Senate Education Committee.
The 2016 third-grade reading retention law, approved by then-Gov. Rick Snyder and a Republican-led Legislature, was supposed to take effect in 2020 but was delayed a year because the COVID-19 pandemic led to cancellation of state standardized tests.
Democrats have argued that the reading law was inequitable and punitive while Republicans said that mandatory retention of struggling readers can help improve dismal student test scores and should not be disbanded before its impact can be fully assessed.
Michigan schools held back a combined 773 third-grade students because of the law in 2021 and 2022. But administrators used broad exemptions in the law to advance another 9,657 students who would have otherwise qualified for retention, according to researchers at Michigan State University.
Republicans also want to restore the state's A-F school grading system. Koleszar, who sponsored the bill to remove the system, said it was duplicative and out of compliance with federal rules.
Providing funds that can be used on private education expenses
Republicans are calling for a program that would provide parents with funds to hire a tutor or to pay for summer or after-school reading programs. Democrats have derided such proposals as vouchers that divert funds from public schools to private entities. Republicans call them “scholarships” that are badly needed to help students catch up after years of pandemic-related school disruptions.
“You can't believe the impact those shutdowns have,” Damoose said. “What difference does it make if you hire a private tutor, or does all the money automatically have to go to public schools? We should have done whatever it took to catch these kids up.”
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer previously vetoed a program that would have provided families $1,000 for their student to get reading tutoring or instruction and a tax-credit scholarship program that students could use at public or private schools.
Proponents of the tax-credit scholarship program tried to get the program created through a petition drive backed by former U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, but organizers withdrew the initiative after it was clear there would not be enough time to have the Legislature create the program before Democrats took control.
The Michigan Constitution bars the use of public dollars to “directly or indirectly to aid or maintain” private education but there have been legal efforts to get that part of the Constitution overturned.
In addition to those measures, Damoose said Republicans also want “highly effective teachers who take positions in schools where they can have the highest impact” to receive “bonuses.” He was not specific about how his party would go about encouraging such bonuses. Teacher pay in Michigan is typically determined by local districts or through bargaining with unions that represent teachers.
Koleszar said creating one-time teacher bonuses incentivizes teachers to leave their current district for another one, which ultimately leads to instability for students.
Also, Republicans want to “make sure our teachers are trained in proven phonics-based reading methods that have worked for decades.”
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