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Senate Passes Return To School Plan In Rare Saturday Session

August 18, 2020

Public schools will receive their state funding 75% based on the 2019-20 school year count and 25% on the 2020-21 year count, under the “Return to Learn” school package that passed the Senate in a rare Saturday, August 15th session.

Last year, schools received their state funding based 90% on a that year’s fall count and 10% on the prior spring count. The switch called for in HB 5912 comes amid the oscillating of kids in and out of school environments and concerns that traditional public schools will see a sharp decrease in state funding. 
 
Substituted versions of HB 5911, HB 5912 and HB 5913 all passed on split votes.  HB 5911 passed 24-14. All of the Senate Democrats voted no with the exception of Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D-Flint), Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr. (D-East Lansing) and Sen. Winnie Brinks (D-East Grand Rapids). Sen. Dale Zorn (R-Ida) was the only Republican to vote no.  
 
HB 5912 and HB 5913 passed 23-15 with Sen. Ed McBroom (R-Vulcan) joining the other senators in voting no. 
 
The bills moved after Republican legislative leadership, Democratic legislative leaders and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer struck a deal on giving school districts the authority to determine how they will be conducting class for the 2020-21 school year in the COVID-19 world. 
 
Session was scheduled for Saturday, 15 days after Sen. Tom Barrett (R-Potterville) tested positive for COVID-19. Since Barrett had been in the Capitol for Senate committee meetings on July 30, the decision was made that the Senate wouldn’t meet until at least 14 days had passed per Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines. 
 
The House adopted the plan during its session Monday. 
 
“Education is a top priority for the #MISenateGOP,” tweeted Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake). “The bipartisan bills we passed today reflect our commitment to ensuring students receive a quality education and empowers schools to make decisions that are in the best interest of students this fall.” 
 
The driving force for the Whitmer administration was a move to switch around the funding formula. Without changes, public schools could find themselves in a lurch with their 2020-21 funding. Anecdotally, many parents are opting for homeschooling, cyber schooling or other alternative arrangements to prevent their kids from being in larger gatherings that could expose them to COVID-19. 
 
Particularly with many school districts like Lansing and Grand Rapids going online only to start the school year, parents are moving their kids to cyber schools that specialize in online instruction. They figure that if their districts are going to online, they might as well go with a school that specializes in that form of learning. 
 
If the funding formula weren’t changed, cyber schools would be seeing a large funding increase at the expense of traditional public schools. 
 
The Governor can do a lot with her emergency powers, but changing around the funding formula in the School Aid Act isn’t one of them. She needs the Legislature for that. 
 
For Republicans, the driving force was standardized assessments. Under the plan, districts will need to test their students within the first nine weeks of school to better appreciate where improvement is needed. A second test in the year’s second half would be given to gauge kids’ academic process. 
 
Aggregate information on the results of the tests must be put on the district’s web site. 
 
Sen. Dayna Polehanki (D-Livonia), a former teacher, said students need more instruction, not a second standardized test. 
 
“I could not — in good conscience — vote for a bill package that adds new testing requirements for students and teachers in what is already a historically challenging school year,” Polehanki said. “What kids need this year is meaningful instructional time with their teachers, not to be sitting in front of a computer for hours on end taking standardized tests.” 
 
The Michigan Education Association (MEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) ended up supporting the bills. In a joint statement issued this morning, AFT-Michigan President David Hecker and MEA President Paula Herbert wrote: 
 
“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 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.” 
 
Other highlights from the bills include:  
 
– School districts should prioritize in-person instruction for kids in grades K-5 
 
– Districts would need to tell the state Department of Education (MDE) if they are holding class in-person, on-line or through a hybrid approach. Those plans would need to be recertified every 30 says following a monthly school board meeting, during which public comments must be solicited. 
 
– Districts going online would need to provide two-way interactions with at least 75% of their students and those students’ teachers. Districts who can’t show this is taking place risk losing their state funding. 
 
– School districts must work with their local health departments in coming up with health and safety guidelines for all in-person learning, which many districts were doing anyway. 
 
– The strict 180-day and 1,098-hour mandates for instruction are being waived for the year, but the teachers still need to give the same amount of instruction they would have under a normal, non-pandemic year. 
 
Sen. Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield) wanted an exception built-in for students who contract COVID-19 and fall ill, but his amendment to this effect was not successful.  
 
Three school groups — the Michigan Association of School Administrators, the Michigan Association of Intermediate School Administrators and the Michigan Association of School Boards — issued a statement that expressed hope that the bills could be improved in the weeks ahead. 
 
“While this process was not exactly what we had hoped for, we are encouraged to see bipartisan action between the Governor, Senate and House,” the statement reads. “As with all compromises, this is not flawless, we hope the Legislature will work with our members and key stakeholders on any future fixed needed. We stand as willing partners to craft a more perfect solution.” 
 
Launch Michigan called the bipartisan compromise “fair, reasonable, provides much-needed clarity for educators and families alike.” 
 
The Tri-County Alliance said the Senate was “checking a box” instead of doing what needs to be done for students and teachers. Executive Director Bob McCann asked the Governor and Legislature to “go back to the drawing board” and seek input from educators this time. 
 
“Despite months of requests from educators across the state for common-sense 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.”

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