Legislative preview: Lansing tackles teaching, roads and inmates

Teachers, drivers, third-graders and nonviolent offenders are all likely to get a lot of attention in Lansing in coming months, as the Michigan Legislature returns from summer vacation to tackle issues that could have major impact on many Michigan residents.

Here are some of the top issues legislators are expected to grapple with this fall:


Senate Bill 103 is the current incarnation of efforts to put into law a more comprehensive state policy on teacher evaluation.

The issue
Michigan’s 2011 teacher tenure reform gave school districts more flexibility to pick and choose which teachers to lay off, based on evaluations. But the state hasn’t yet told districts what those evaluations should look like – such as what tests should be used to measure student growth, and what other factors can be used. That’s a problem because school districts have no consistent, reliable system to determine which teachers are doing well and which are failing their students and need help to get better.

Who the bill impacts
About 100,000 state teachers and administrators, whose jobs and raises depend on their evaluations. But its most important impact is on every public k-12 student in Michigan, because teachers have the biggest influence on student learning of all factors inside school walls (though outside factors such as income can have an even bigger impact).

Why this fall
Without intervention from Lansing, the 2011 law requires that 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation this school year will be based on student growth on tests. Most school organizations are uncomfortable with that high of a share being based on standardized tests, because of concerns that those tests do not accurately reflect classroom learning - a concern that is heightened by the fact that the state’s standardized test is new and may not have all the bugs worked out. Under the provisions of the bill now being considered, student growth would account for 25 percent of teacher evaluations, and even that wouldn’t kick in until the 2017-18 school year.

There’s also a matter of impatience in Lansing. It’s been four years since teacher evaluation was mandated, and almost two years since bills providing guidance on evaluations were first introduced. Legislators are ready to put the issue to bed and move on.

The debate is over whether the state will mandate evaluation models (or, at the least, determine whether a district’s model measures up), or allow school districts have the final say on how they evaluate their own teachers. The current version of the bill, sponsored by Sen. Phil Pavlov, R-St. Clair, allows school districts to use whatever evaluation model they want.

Pavlov told Bridge in June that he didn’t think “bureaucrats” in Lansing should determine how local districts evaluate their teachers and administrators. “If you put the Department of Education in charge of this for all school districts, you are setting yourself up for failure,” Pavlov said. “The Department of Education is not equipped to handle teacher evaluation.”

Bridge wrote about the issue, in “How a single, powerful senator killed serious reform of teacher evaluation.”

Allowing every school district come up with its own system is how the state ended up with, as recently as 2012, 99 percent of teachers being rated effective or highly effective.

Some legislators prefer a teacher evaluation bill like one that came close to being passed last December, which mandated school districts choose from among several research-based evaluation models that have been shown to be effective in reliably evaluating teachers and helping them improve in the classroom.

Pavlov’s bill passed the Senate and is now in the House education committee, where details are still being negotiated.


The long, winding road, the highway to Hell, pick your own cliche, will continue in coming months, as legislators try again to find a way to fund the needed repair of Michigan roads.

The issue
Michigan’s roads are considered to be among the worst in the nation; probably not coincidentally, Michigan spends the least per capita on roads and bridges in the country.

Gov. Rick Snyder has been trying to increase funding for road and bridge repairs since 2011, with no luck despite widespread public support. It’s estimated that it will take at least $1.2 billion additional funding per year to get our roads and bridges in shape.

Who it impacts
Everyone! Michigan drivers spend an average of $357 a year on blown tires, bent rims and other repairs due to bad roads, according to an estimate by TRIP, a national transportation research group.

Why this fall
Despite their long record of failure on the issue, legislators continue to work to find a funding mechanism that can win enough votes to pass and that has the support of the governor. Leaders were working behind the scenes in August to find a solution, and have promised to try again this fall.

Michigan’s crumbling roads and bridges are a safety hazard and a drain on the pocketbooks of residents and businesses. And the roads aren’t fixing themselves. Each year lawmakers delay, the cost of repairing the roads rises by an estimated $100 million.

Who’s paying for it? Michigan residents say they’re willing to pay more taxes to repair roads, but a ballot initiative that would have increased the gas tax to pay for repairs (along with other things) went down in flames in May.

Republicans haven’t been able to muster enough votes to pass a road funding bill that raises tax revenue without Democratic support; Democrats, accustomed to having little influence in Lansing because of their minority status, want concessions on other issues in exchange for their votes. The most recent effort put forth by the GOP called for $600 million in increased revenue from increased fuel taxes and registration fees, and another $600 million from existing general fund spending – without saying where that $600 million would come from. Snyder has said he’s uncomfortable diverting that much from existing funding.

At this point, who the hell knows?


House Bill 4822 would put a statewide empahsis on early reading skills, through extra support for kids who are struggling, and by retaining some students in third grade who are well below grade level in reading.

The issue
Third-grade reading proficiency is widely viewed as an important indicator of future academic success.

That’s not a good sign for Michigan, which is 40th in the nation in third-grade reading proficiency rates.

The bill is patterned off recommendations made by a third-grade reading workgroup put together by Snyder. That report, which you can read here, and this year’s bill emphasize the importance of identifying struggling readers early and one-on-one instruction to help those students catch up.

Who the bill impacts
Students in early grades would get more reading instruction. Those who are struggling will get even more attention. Schools would get money for additional literacy coaches. Students who are still behind after that extra support would run the risk of being retained in third grade.

Why this fall
There’s already $100 million in the budget year that begins in October set aside for at-risk and K-3 literacy efforts. Schools are waiting to hear how that money can be spent.

Better readers in third grade pays dividends years down the road, in higher graduation rates and more adults with college degrees.

More students will be held back in third grade because of poor reading skills. As currently written, third-grade students who are reading at a second-grade or lower will not advance to fourth grade unless they’re allowed to advance through passing alternative standardized tests or by presenting a portfolio of satisfactory classroom work. How many students will have to repeat third grade? Nobody knows, but Gary Naeyaert, of the Great Lakes Education Project, whose organization has supported this legislation for several years, said he expected the number being held in third grade would be 3,000 or less. That’s less than 3 percent of all third-grade public school students, but it’s also triple the number who are currently flunking third grade. Numerous studies have found that students who are retained in early grades are more likely to drop out of high school compared with students who strugged with reading in early grades and were not retained.

A more punitive “read or flunk” bill, which would have held back 32,000 third graders who weren’t reading at proficiency levels and would have had a disproportionate impact on high-poverty school children, failed last year.

This year’s version, with its added emphasis on helping kids catch up in reading rather than holding them back a grade, has bipartisan sponsors, and has $100 million in funding for at-risk and k-3 literacy efforts already in the budget.


A package of bills, including House Bill 4137 and 4138 would cut the number of inmates in Michigan’s prisons.

The issue
Michigan has 43,000 inmates in its prisons, costing about $2 billion a year, which is more than we spend on education. Other states, including Texas have made sizable cuts in their prison populations, saving money while also reducing recidivism, by locking up fewer nonviolent criminals.

Who the bills impact
As many as 10,000 prisoners could be released, under recommendations made by the bipartisan Citizens Alliance for Prisons and Public Spending. At a current annual cost to the state of $35,000 per prisoner, that could mean as much as $350 million in savings each year that could be spent elsewhere (such as road repairs).

Why this fall
Reform efforts have been percolating for years, led by former Rep. Joe Haveman, a Republican who was term-limited out of office last session. Prison reform now has growing bipartisan support both in Michigan and nationally. In Michigan, that has meant support from diverse groups ranging from the Mackinac Center to the ACLU, and sponsors on both sides of the aisle.

Snyder called corrections and sentencing reform “smart justice,” that can save the state millions by diverting nonviolent offenders to treatment and probation.

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette led the charge against reform last year, warning that “violent criminals” could be released “back into our neighborhoods.”

The bills have bipartisan support in Lansing and among some liberal and conservative advocacy groups, as well as the backing of the governor.

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Thu, 09/10/2015 - 7:44am
Likely to be passed in this order considering the egos, brinkmanship and dsyfunctional nature of state govt. 1. Reading 2. Teacher evaluation 3. Corrections 4. Roads
Thu, 09/10/2015 - 9:52am
I'm in favor of offering a choice of several teacher evaluation models that have already been tested elsewhere and found to be useful. I'd also offer the districts the opportunity to fine tune those models in a manner that best works for them, as long as the basic structure remains intact.
Thu, 09/10/2015 - 10:58am
The idea that a teachers success could be based on test score is crazy. It is very important but so much more goes into an evaluation of how a student is doing. We keep relying on paper and pencil tests. Consider the many methods employed in the learning process. Not to mention home environment,t illness, absence from school etc. R..L.
Thu, 09/10/2015 - 9:19pm
What do teachers want to see as a criteris to recongize teacher success?
Charles Richards
Thu, 09/10/2015 - 1:46pm
Mr. French says, "though outside factors such as income can have an even bigger impact." than teacher quality. He has not considered the possibility that above average parental ability accounts for both higher income and better educational results. He goes on to say that many school organizations are uncomfortable with the requirement that, "50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation this school year will be based on student growth on tests." They are concerned that "those tests do not accurately reflect classroom learning." What if, however imperfect, they reflect classroom learning better than any other tool or combination of tools? Isn't it possible that districts are reluctant to know how well they are doing? Mr. French is onto something when he says, "Allowing every school district (to) come up with its own system is how the state ended up with, as recently as 2012, 99 percent of teachers being rated effective or highly effective." For that reason, districts should be required to select an evaluation method from several proven methods.
Thu, 09/10/2015 - 2:43pm
"Who’s paying for it? Michigan residents say they’re willing to pay more taxes to repair roads, but a ballot initiative that would have increased the gas tax to pay for repairs (along with other things) went down in flames in May."Exactly who proofreads this material before it gets posted? Michigan Motorists currently pay more than enough to address Michigan's Roads. The sad reality is that Lansing politicians have taken it upon themselves divert much of that money to superfluous and other unrelated items, instead of directly towards roads themselves. The sales tax on gas? Why do we pay for this at the pump only to see it directed to other pet projects? Mass transit? Why should Michigan Motorists need to subsidize someone else's bus ride via diversion of road monies into the "comprehensive transportation fund"? Road "enhancements"? Fixing roads or making them look pretty by diverting road money towards landscaping? DDOT massive screw up along I-696 only the argument of why this is bad public policy. Choo-choo trains to nowhere? Why did MDOT pay to let railcars sit in a storage yard gathering rust? Better question: why wasn't the person responsible for the million of dollars wasted on that boondoggle fired? I'll give Mr. French this, at least he is still toting TCFM's line that "more taxes" is all that it takes to fix anything in Michigan, instead of just make Lansing prioritize its spending like every responsible adult is expected to do.
Sun, 09/13/2015 - 7:54am
How is it that this legislature can pass destructive bills like "right to work" quickly (under cover of darkness) but can't come up with important, meaningful legislation? Let's get road funding taken care of - without robbing the general fund! The majority of voters accept that increased taxes are needed to find this. Just do it!
Sun, 09/13/2015 - 11:16am
Ideology rather than logic rules Michigan politics, that is why this state is so messed up in its priorities.
Bob Balwinski
Sun, 09/13/2015 - 12:46pm
I agree! Logic and facts are no match for ideology.
Bob Balwinski
Sun, 09/13/2015 - 12:47pm
In a perfect world, the best amongst us would be teachers. The rest would have to settle for something less.
Henry Bareiss
Mon, 09/14/2015 - 1:31pm
Nowhere do any politicians show any knowledge of what makes for a school that works. There are many studies and reports of schools that work. The important factor is what kind of a learning environment is. Schools are like companies that are successful are well run by their executives. Ford didn't go bankrupt not because the individual line workers are better of that the engineers are good but how the mangers organized and used them. Mullaly was the decisive factor. The same holds true for schools. The best support the teachers to improve and be the best. Looking only at individual teacher evaluations is missing the point and just making the teachers feel under siege. Teachers and their unions have shown to be more than willing to educate children well. Top down solutions do not engage the creativity of teachers. I student taught at an elementary school in Pontiac, one of the worst districts anywhere. It was exciting and creative. They performed at a very high level. The teachers were actively supported by their principal who was extremely dedicated to the program. We need to hire the bet CEOs (principals) to run schools. They can deal with the teachers. We need to be willing to concentrate the elite teachers with the most support to teach at schools at risk. Short of this we will not get best and the brightest to teach our children. Support not attacks are what the schools need. The beast have never need standardized evaluations to excel.
Robert Gordon
Wed, 09/16/2015 - 4:48pm
I expect stronger editing than this. Our $2 billion plus prison budget is more than school spending? Good grief, you are only off by about $11 billion. Perhaps you meant, "more than Michigan spends on higher education."