Legislature helps, hurts public schools
The Michigan Legislature passed so many bills in so little time before rushing off to its summer recess earlier this month that journalists, and we suspect some legislators as well, could barely keep track of what was going on. After the dust cleared, it became apparent that legislators had pushed through some far-reaching actions – some positive, some negative – affecting public schools in Michigan. Here are a few that caught our attention.
– Narrowing the funding gap. The $13.9 billion school aid package provided K-12 schools a 4 percent increase in funding, but not everyone is getting the same boost. All districts will receive at least a $50 increase in per-pupil funding, but lower-funded districts will get as much as $175 more than last year. That’s good news for the Holland-Zeeland area, where most of the public school districts are at or near the state minimum in per-pupil funding. Eliminating the wide gap in funding between school districts was supposed to be addressed by Proposal A, adopted back in 1994, but two decades later, disparities still persist. The new school aid bill narrows the gap between the top and bottom districts from $973 to $848 per student, a step in the right direction.
– Weakening the Michigan Merit Curriculum. Score one for supporters of weaker graduation standards in Michigan. The rigorous Michigan Merit Curriculum has been under fire ever since it was adopted eight years ago from critics who think our state’s students aren’t capable of handling challenging classes. Bills passed this month would let students substitute career training courses such as welding and agricultural science for academic courses such as algebra 2 and physics. They also cut the foreign language requirement from two classes to one, and allow it to be taken before high school. The purpose of the Michigan Merit Curriculum was to give every student an education that prepares him or her to go to college, if that’s the course they want to pursue, or a job in the modern knowledge-based economy. The latest legislation, if it’s signed into law, would deprive many students of those opportunities. This retreat from educational rigor would be a sad development for Michigan, and if Gov. Rick Snyder is serious about raising educational standards, he should veto this legislation.
– Longer school year. Included in the school aid bill is a provision requiring Michigan public schools to offer at least 180 days of instruction by 2016-17, up from the current 175 days. Lengthening the school year has been a priority of ours for some time, since it’s repeated instruction, not longer class periods, that really help students master important concepts. Michigan dropped its day requirement in 2003-04 in favor of a requirement of a minimum of 1,098 hours of instruction, and many school districts reduced the number of school days from 180 to less than 170 to save money on transportation and utilities. A return to the 180-day school year should improve education and bring Michigan back to the U.S. standard, even though our school year will continue to be much shorter than those in Asian and European countries whose students regularly outperform ours.
– The MEAP survives. Gov. Snyder, state education officials and non-conspiratorially minded legislators overcame objections to Michigan adopting the Common Core school standards. But the critics – including conservatives who view Common Core as a backdoor route to federal control of public schools and liberals who consider it a plot by Bill Gates for a corporate takeover – mounted a successful rearguard effort to block use of the Smarter Balanced test, the national assessment tool designed to measure how well students are meeting the new standards. Before recessing, the Legislature instructed the Department of Education to use the MEAP, which the department has been trying to retire, for another year and tweak it to mesh with Common Core. That’s easier said than done, given the complexity of designing a standardized test for use next spring. So now Michigan has new school standards without any way to measure how students are faring and how they compare with their peers in other states. This makes no sense. Perhaps a majority of legislators prefer not to know how Michigan students stack up, but we’d like to know the truth. This is a provision of the school aid budget where Gov. Snyder should exercise his line-item veto.
– The Holland Sentinel