Senate OKs bipartisan education legislation, receives backlash from Dems, ed groups

By: - August 15, 2020 2:10 pm

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During a rare Saturday session, the Senate approved a bipartisan education deal that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and legislative leaders announced late Friday night that lays out more stringent requirements for local school districts.

The plan, which senators say they received just before 10 p.m. Friday to review, requires districts to do a monthly public review of their educational plans and conduct benchmark assessments in the fall and spring, temporarily waives the required 1,098 hours of instruction each school year for each district and reconstructs how the student count will be done for the upcoming school year.

Senators approved House Bill 5911 in a 23-14 vote and House Bill 5912 and House Bill 5913 in 23-15 votes.

After getting approval from the Senate, The House is expected to vote on the legislation Monday. If approved, it will be sent to the governor to be signed.

Friday night, Whitmer, Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake), Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D-Flint), House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) and House Minority Leader Christine Greig (D-Farmington Hills) announced the compromise in a joint statement, saying it “will give students, parents, educators and support staff much needed support, flexibility and certainty as we approach the new school year.”

However, not everyone is on board with the last minute plan. 

“Our education leaders called upon legislators to bring them into the fold when these options were discussed, yet here we are, a day late and a dollar short, pushing through a mediocre proposal for the sake of saying it was done,” Sen. Erika Geiss (D-Taylor) said during Saturday’s session. 

Geiss said the compromised package is “so incredibly tardy that it probably should get detention.”

The initial education package was originally introduced by Republicans and was largely criticized by Democrats for requiring students in kindergarten through the fifth grade to attend school in-person. 

In the negotiated package, in-person learning has been reduced to a recommendation, much like it was in the governor’s “Return to School Roadmap” released in June.

The updated legislation also adjusts schools’ student counts for this school year, which is how per-pupil funding is determined in Michigan, to a weighted model where  75% of funding will be tied to last year’s student count and 25% will be tied to the student count for the 2020-2021 school year.

Many Democrats and education groups were hoping the legislation would base all funding on the previous year’s student count due to concerns of a drop in student population and difficulty tracking online students. 

Sen. Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor) offered an amendment to allow for districts to use last year’s student count in order to avoid “an administrative nightmare” and offer schools “more clarity, certainty and ease.”

However, Irwin’s amendment, along with a number of other amendments offered up by Democrats failed on the floor.

Tri-County Alliance for Public Education Executive Director Robert McCann called the plan “a backroom deal” that puts “significant obstacles in the path of those actually trying to focus on the needs of students.”

“Schools need the Governor and the Legislature to step back, listen to the real needs of educators and refocus their efforts on actually passing a budget so schools can move their plans forward, not slow them down further with unnecessary new requirements and poorly thought out ideas,” McCann said in a statement. “Lansing had months to get this right and somehow found a way to still get every part of it wrong and, unfortunately, it’s our students who will see the consequences of that.”

The Michigan Caucus Of Rank-and-File Educators (MI CORE) protested in front of the Capitol Saturday morning while the Senate voted on the bills inside. 

“This deal highlights just how little progress has been made by lawmakers since March to treat this public health crisis with the seriousness it deserves,” MI CORE organizers wrote in a statement. 

Detroit Public Schools Community District Superintendent Nikolai Vitti took to Twitter to share his distrust in the legislation. 

Students lose the most with the state’s reopening plan,” Vitti tweeted. “Governor and Legislature abandoned leadership responsibilities and avoided challenges from unions, charters and parents, and simply dumped everything on boards and superintendents.”

However, the package did get support from the Michigan Education Association (MEA) and American Federation of Teachers Michigan (AFT).

“Legislative compromises are never perfect, and the revised versions of HB 5911-13 under consideration in the Senate today are no exception. However, these bills provide students, parents, educators and districts both certainty and flexibility on key issues as we head into the 2020-21 school year,” MEA President Paula Herbart and AFT Michigan President David Hecker wrote in a joint statement Saturday.

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Allison R. Donahue
Allison R. Donahue

Allison R. Donahue covers education, women's issues and LGBTQ issues. Previously, she was a suburbs reporter at the St. Cloud Times in St. Cloud, Minn., covering local education and government. As a graduate of Grand Valley State University, she has previous experience as a freelance researcher for USA Today and an intern with WOOD TV-8. When she is away from her desk, she spends her time going to concerts, comedy shows or getting lost on hikes in different places around the world.