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Bridge Michigan
Michigan’s nonpartisan, nonprofit news source

Michigan A-to-F school bill gets passing grade in Senate; on to Gov. Rick Snyder

Jan. 3: Michigan’s A-to-F school ratings on ice until attorney general weighs in
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

Michigan schools are likely to start receiving a report card filled with letter grades from A to F, after the Senate approved the controversial policy Tuesday night, sending the bill to Gov. Rick Snyder who has signaled he’s likely to sign it into law.

The passage, by a narrow 21-17 vote in the Senate, and expected approval by Snyder sets the stage for what could be several years of rough adjustments in Michigan schools, as the Michigan Department of Education resets its accountability system again and wrestles to make the A-to-F system mandated in the bill conform to federal guidelines.

House Bill 5526 mandates that Michigan schools be graded from best (A) to worse (F) in five metrics: proficiency in math and English; growth in math and English; growth in proficiency among English as a second language students; graduation rates; and academic performance compared to similar schools.

Snyder is expected to sign the bill. “That is something I’ve been a long-term supporter of, because that’s public record,” Snyder told reporters last week. “If you go back, I’ve called for A-F back in 2012.”

The House passed the bill last week by a thin 56-53 margin. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Saginaw, told Bridge he believes the A to F grades will make it easier for parents to gauge how schools are performing.

Related: Michigan education department blasts A to F school system bill
Related: Michigan may soon rank schools A to F. Will it help? Nobody knows
Dec. 19: School grades, toxic waste and dark money: Your Michigan lame duck roundup

Because schools will not receive a cumulative letter grade, however, parents may find that their neighborhood school earned a mix of grades.

Democrats and some Republicans opposed the bill because of doubts that the system would help learning. In the Senate, two key Republicans, Education Committee Chair Phil Pavlov and longtime schools advocate Margaret O’Brien, both voted no.

A review panel, whose members will be chosen by the governor (three positions), the speaker of the House and the Senate majority leader (one each), will offer guidance on the guidelines established by the education department.

The bill was not given immediate effect, meaning Democratic Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer will likely be able to fill three spots on the review panel, giving Democrats a 3-2 appoiontee majority.

The advisory panel replaces a powerful commission with potentially broad authority over education issues that would have been created in an earlier version of the bill. That commission was seen as one of several Republican power grabs attempted in lame duck to take some control away from incoming Democrats. The commission would have usurped some control over schools from the State Board of Education, which will have a Democratic majority in January and incoming Democratic governor Gretchen Whitmer.

A second set of bills gives birth to the same commission. Those bills, which create “public innovation districts,” passed the House but are bogged down in the Senate Education Committee with only two days remaining in the lame duck session.

In a last-ditch effort to derail the bill, Interim State Superintendent Sheila Alles penned a letter to the Senate earlier Tuesday, expressing the education department’s opposition to the policy.

Alles wrote that the policy, as spelled out in the bill, may violate the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) law, and that the state will have to operate its current, federally approved accountability system in parallel to the A-to-F system until the new system is approved at the federal level.

After the vote, a spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-Grand Haven said Meekhof does not have concerns that the A-to-F policy will face problems meeting federal guidelines.

“The accountability clock for our schools would have to be reset and the goal post moved yet again,” Alles wrote of the new policy.

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