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

Jan. 17: Six systems in 7 years and Michigan students still lag. Now comes A to F.​

The fight over grading Michigan schools on an A-to-F scale apparently isn’t over yet.

The Michigan Department of Education says it will hold off on implementing the new accountability system because of concerns that parts of the system may violate federal law, according to Martin Ackley, director of policy and governmental affairs for MDE.

Ackley told Bridge on Thursday the department plans to ask newly elected Attorney General Dana Nessel for a legal review of the policy, passed by the GOP in the waning days of December’s lame duck session and signed into law by outgoing Republican Gov. Rick Snyder last week.

The law requires MDE to create a system to grade schools from best (A) to worst (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.

You can read the law here.

Most Democrats in the Legislature opposed the measure, as did the education department, which has spent two years creating a different accountability system that has been approved by the U.S. Department of Education.

Bridge’s request for comment to the Attorney General’s Office wasn’t immediately returned Thursday and it’s unclear what Nessel, a Democrat, would do with the matter.

Feb. 4, 2019: In one month, Dana Nessel erases many of Bill Schuette’s federal pursuits
Related: Dana Nessel moves to drop Michigan from suits fighting EPA clean air rules

Nessel wasted no time responding to her office’s first request for legal review – from newly elected Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to examine another lame-duck law supporting the boring of a tunnel under the straits of Mackinac to replace Enbridge’s Line 5. Nessel received that request Wednesday and immediately released a statement saying she had “serious and significant concerns” with the tunnel law.

A legal opinion from the attorney general is not binding on courts, but can be binding on state departments. If Nessel were to suggest that parts of the A-to-F policy violated federal law, it likely would, at minimum, delay implementation.

“We are looking for guidance about how to move forward,” Ackley said. “It may be fine, but we don’t know. We don’t want to violate federal law.”

Ackley said the department also plans to reach out to the U.S. Department of Education for guidance on the legality of the policy.

Legal questions about the A-to-F rating system were first outlined in a Dec. 18 letter from Sheila Alles, interim State Superintendent, to the House of Representatives asking the chamber not to approve the policy.

In the letter, Alles, who holds the top MDE position, warned that the A-to-F proposal exempted special education students from accountability metrics, which she said violates the federal Individuals with Disabilities Act and the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA.

Ackley echoed those legal concerns to Bridge on Thursday.  

ESSA also requires that all schools be evaluated by the same accountability system; but Michigan’s A-to-F policy omits schools designated as “alternative education.”

Accountability measures for schools, which often include metrics such as student performance on standardized tests, are required by federal law. While those measures vary from state to state, they must be approved by the U.S. Department of Education.

In her letter to legislators, Alles outlined other reasons she vehemently opposed the law. She wrote that by creating a new means for gauging school progress, the policy would cause the “accountability clock” for schools to be “reset again,” and “the goal post moved yet again.”

You can read the interim State Superintendent’s letter here.

Legislators approved the A-to-F policy hours after receiving Alles’ letter.

House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, could not be immediately reached for comment Thursday.

Former Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Saginaw, the sponsor of the bill, declined to comment. In December, Kelly said he did not believe the law violated federal law. Kelly said he believed the A-to-F grading system for schools will make it easier for parents to gauge how schools are performing.

Casandra Ulbrich, co-president of the State Board of Education and a Democrat on what is now a Democratic-controlled board, said she agreed with MDE’s actions.

“Prior to the vote, it was made clear to the Legislature and the Governor that the bill, as written, was problematic and was believed to violate aspects of federal law and the state's ESSA plan,” she wrote Bridge in an email. “Unfortunately, the Legislature and the Governor decided to move forward anyway, necessitating further direction from the AG and the USDOE.” 

Ulbrich said the State Board of Education is “currently reviewing the legislation as well to determine potential next steps from the Board's perspective.”

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