Could Michigan’s new A-F law cost the state federal funding?

Michigan’s education department leaders will meet with the state’s top attorneys next week to sort out whether a new school accountability law violates federal rules. If implemented, the new mandate, which requires the state department to issue A-F letter grades to schools, could cost Michigan some federal funding, education leaders say.

“That’s the ultimate risk, if you violate federal law,” Martin Ackley, the director of the office of public and government affairs at the Michigan Department of Education, said during a meeting Tuesday.

Ackley’s comment came during the State Board of Education meeting and in response to a question from Board President Casandra Ulbrich, about “possible sanctions” for violating federal law. That’s because the new law — approved during the lame-duck legislative session in December — exempts some alternative schools from receiving letter grades, and it exempts special education students from the state’s participation rate on state exams.

Department officials also say the grading mandate conflicts with the state’s existing accountability system that the U.S. Department of Education approved in November 2017.

Ackley said withholding federal funding isn’t a common practice of the U.S. Department of Education, but that it can happen, and there is a precedent.

In a December letter to lawmakers, Interim State Superintendent Sheila Alles said omitting alternative schools is a violation because the federal government  “requires all schools to be included in a single accountability system that uses the same methodology for all schools.” Also at issue, the A-F law exempts special education students from the “participation rate” despite federal rules that “all students must be included in the state’s accountability system.”

The sponsor of the legislation, former Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Saginaw Township, told Bridge Magazine in December that he didn’t believe it violated federal law. Kelly’s term ended last month.

The department has already sought guidance from the federal department and is awaiting a reply. Now, it is also asking for advice from the state Attorney General’s office. Ackley said that what they hear from federal and state authorities will determine how it proceeds.

“Do we go forward with the (state) law and be in violation of federal law? If we try to implement this as written, we would have to amend our” federal accountability plan. That plan outlines the state’s efforts to comply with the Every Student Succeeds Act, the federal law that governs K-12 schools.

If the plan has to be amended, Ackley said, it would take time, as a new public comment process could take months and conflict with the Sept. 1 deadline for issuing letter grades.

The state’s existing accountability system includes a parent transparency dashboard that provides data on school performance, such as test scores and things like graduation rates, expulsions, and attendance rates. It also includes a numerical rating of schools, from 0 to 100, based on academic performance and school quality.

Department officials say they hope the guidance will lead in one clear direction. 

“I would hope that we would avoid having more than one accountability system,” Alles said during the board meeting.