Senate OKs School Plan With Union Support

The Senate today approved a plan agreed to by legislative leaders and the administration stipulating various requirements on attendance, testing and communication with students for schools as they begin the 2020-21 academic year amid the new coronavirus pandemic.

While the four legislative leaders and Governor Gretchen Whitmer announced Friday they had reached a deal, school administrators and groups representing them slammed the plan as a backroom deal that would undermine the work of school districts to prepare for the new school year (See Gongwer Michigan Report, August 14, 2020). Teachers’ unions, though, came out in support of the bills today.

HB 5911, HB 5912 and HB 5913 passed 24-14, 23-15 and 23-15, respectively. They all received immediate effect. The bills all saw Senate substitutes changing House-versions of the bills that passed last month. One key change from the original version is in-person instruction is no longer required for grades K-5, though the bills seek for it to be prioritized.

Just four Senate Democrats voted yes on the bills: Minority Leader Jim Ananich of Flint, Sen. Winnie Brinks of Grand Rapids, Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr. Of East Lansing and Sen. Sean McCann of Kalamazoo.

Two Republicans, Sen. Jon Bumstead of Newaygo and Sen. Dale Zorn of Ida, voted no on all three bills. Sen. Ed McBroom (R-Vulcan) voted no on the last two bills.

The bills would allow instruction to be delivered at a school or a different location, in-person, online, digitally, by other remote means or any combination. Instruction is not required to be in real time.

On counting students – the key way schools receive funding – the bills would waive for the 2020-21 school year the requirement for the Department of Education to pay districts reduced state aid if their membership if it does not have at least 75 percent attendance on a day of pupil instruction.

Districts would be required to have at least two two-way interactions with 75 percent of its students per week to receive payments. Those interactions would be reported monthly at required board meetings. The bills would also base the pupil count formula on 75 percent of the district’s population in the 2019-20 academic year and 25 percent on 2020-21.

Sen. Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit) offered an amendment to remove the funding penalty based on the two-way interactions, saying administrators in Detroit have had a hard time getting parents on the phone or even at their homes on if they are going to use in-person or online education.

“We cannot ignore these realities,” Ms. Chang said. Her amendment was not adopted.

Additionally, districts also would no longer have to meet the requirement for 1,098 hours of education over 180 days a year, but still must provide the same course content to students they would have provided within those parameters. Benchmark assessments would also be required within the first nine weeks of school starting and before the last day of the school year.

Sen. Dayna Polehanki (D-Livonia), in speaking to an amendment that would have removed the benchmark requirement, said it is unfair to put on students and teachers as they start a new school year during a pandemic.

“While benchmark assessments can be useful to drive instruction and monitor student progress when administered in controlled testing situations like in a computer lab with a proctor, they are not designed to be taken from home, because academic integrity can’t be ensured,” she said. “Rendering any report the state may create from tests taken from home as useless. Benchmark tests take multiple class periods to administer for each subject and they are untimed. To add yet another standardized test onto kids’ plates in the first new school year during COVID. To ask students and teachers to participate in what would amount to a weeks-long exercise in futility … in unfair.”

Sen. Lana Theis (R-Brighton), though, said while she appreciated where Ms. Polehanki was coming from, it would be “educational malfeasance” if educators attempted to teach students this year without first determining where they are.

“We are in unprecedented times they have no idea what has been learned or lost since we left for COVID,” Ms. Theis said.

Michigan Education Association President Paula Herbart and American Federation of Teachers-Michigan President David Hecker in a statement expressed support for the bills while also noting, “legislative compromises are never perfect.”

“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,” the pair said. “MEA and AFT Michigan hope these bills are adopted, so that we can move forward with other important issues, especially a budget for the coming school year that fully addresses the financial needs of schools to keep students, educators and families safe during this pandemic.”

A joint statement from the Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators, the Michigan Association of Intermediate School Administrators and the Michigan Association of School Boards said while the process was not what the groups hoped for, they are encouraged at the bipartisan cooperation between the governor and Legislature.

“We look ahead to the next few weeks for not only implementing our Return to Learn plans for Michigan’s 1.5 million school children, but also continued cooperation with the governor and Legislature for a budget that will provide the resources we need. We also hope that this time will allow for much-need stakeholder input on the details of these bills and improvements to make them more workable in practice,” the statement said. “For weeks, we’ve been asking for answers to some very pressing questions, and while we may not like all of them, this bipartisan package provides us with clarity as we work toward delivering the essential service of education in the most unprecedented times.

“As with all compromises, this is not flawless, we hope the Legislature will work with our members and key stakeholders on any future fixes needed and we stand as willing partners to craft a more perfect solution,” the groups said. “We continue our call to Congress to provide us with the necessary federal funding to implement the changes made today.”

Robert McCann, executive director of the Tri-County Alliance for Public Education, panned the bills.

“Despite the resounding opposition from schools after this poorly thought out plan was announced last night, the Senate has rushed it through, continuing to ignore the real needs of our schools and our students,” he said in a statement. “Despite months of requests from educators across the state for commonsense solutions that provide flexibility and funding for schools, today’s legislation will only make it harder for every district to successfully deliver students the support they deserve this fall. Before this legislation goes any further, the governor and the Legislature should go back to the drawing board, bring educators into the discussion and provide the solutions schools have been asking for, for months.”

Launch Michigan, a coalition of business, education, labor, philanthropy and civic leaders, praised the legislation.

“The bipartisan compromise negotiated by Governor Whitmer and legislative leaders to help reopen Michigan’s public schools safely is fair, reasonable and provides much-needed clarity for educators and families alike,” Launch Michigan President Adam Zemke said in a statement. “Launch Michigan remains focused on mitigating the learning losses our children are experiencing during the COVID-19 pandemic, but we recognize that stability about some immediate items is necessary.”

Another key requirement within the bills has school boards approve their continuity of learning plans monthly at a public meeting. Districts would be required to provide instruction under an approved extended COVID-19 learning plan to receive funding.

In consultation with local health departments and district employees, districts would be required to develop guidelines on methods to deliver instruction using “key metrics.” Those metrics would include COVID-19 trends like positive tests or hospitalizations, cases per 1 million people per day, health care capacity strength and testing, tracing and containment infrastructure in place to deal with the new coronavirus.

The bills came under sharp criticism from administrators and superintendents, one key reason being schools do not know what kind of budget they are working with in the 2020-21 school year and may not until the end of September.

Detroit Public Schools Community District Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said on Twitter the plan will lead “to an enormous amount of political pressure on school boards” to offer face-to-face learning or online learning with budget cuts.

“Governor and Legislature abandoned leadership responsibilities and avoided challenges from unions, charters and parents and simply dumped everything on boards and superintendents,” he wrote.

The bills require districts to establish educational goals by September 15, 2020. Those that intend to provide instruction under an extended COVID-19 learning plan must submit plans to the intermediate district in which it was located (or, for a public school academy, or charter, its authorizing body) by October 1, 2020. Intermediate districts and authorizing bodies must approve the plan if it included all the required elements.

The implementation of the Michigan Kindergarten Entry Operation Tool would be suspended for 2020-21 under the bills, instead administering the tool within 45 days of the school year beginning in 2021.

Ms. Theis, chair of the Senate Education and Career Readiness Committee, said in a statement following the bills’ passing that the plan would ensure local school districts are “empowered” to make the best decisions for their communities.

“Entrusting local education leaders with the flexibility to make more and better decisions will increase opportunities for educational enrichment and help improve student achievement,” she said. “The Return to Learn plan will help them accomplish that.”

Sen. Sylvia Santana (D-Detroit), though, said the bills fall short.

“Our educators, students and families deserve to know that those elected and entrusted to do the work of the people have not done their homework to create a safe and equitable environment for students this school year. The process this bill package has undergone falls short of benchmarks and, unfortunately, it does not provide teachers or parents with the clarity and guidance they need during a deadly, global pandemic,” Ms. Santana said in a statement. “Instead of working with academic stakeholders who have to implement this plan, a deal was negotiated without their input. Without proper vetting and their feedback, I could not – in good faith – support legislation that lacks evaluation from so many important voices who were not brought to the table or asked to be part of the conversation.”

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This story was prepared by the staff at EUP News or contributed from an outside source.

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