Child care, federal funding, and accountability: Here are the education issues facing Whitmer and GOP leaders.

Markers, pencils and pens in a Minnie Mouse coffee cup, small yellow cones, a dictionary, and other items sit atop a desk in a classroom.
An extensive education agenda faces Michigan’s political leaders as they prepare for budget negotiations. (Anthony Lanzilote for Chalkbeat)

Michigan’s education system is approaching a turning point as COVID-19 case numbers drop and more students return to school. Billions in federal relief funds are on the way, and state leaders are turning their focus to helping students address the academic and emotional toll of an exceptionally difficult year.

Key questions for schools remain unanswered, however, amid political battles in Lansing. Most of the federal aid for K-12 schools and the state’s early childhood education system hasn’t been allocated. Educators are calling for teacher evaluations to be canceled this year, and some parents are insisting on a virtual-only learning option for the fall, but both of those changes would require a change in state law. And debate has broken out about whether Michigan’s “read or flunk” law for third graders should go into effect this year or next year, if at all.

Answers could be forthcoming, especially after an agreement between leaders of the Republican-controlled Legislature and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, set the stage for budget negotiations in the coming weeks. The shift came as Whitmer announced plans to lift public health orders related to the pandemic, which Republicans have sought to eliminate.

A timeline negotiations for hasn’t been made public. 

Here are some of the key education that the two sides will need to discuss:

Federal aid for K-12 schools

Congress set aside $6 billion to help Michigan schools reopen and help students recover after the pandemic — the largest single education investment in the state’s history.

Local school boards and superintendents will decide how the vast majority of the money will be spent. However, most of the funds haven’t reached the K-12 system yet because Republican leaders refused to allocate the money unless Whitmer gave the Legislature more say in public health orders.

Districts will decide how to spend 90% of the federal funds, which must be distributed based on a formula chosen by Congress that sends more money per pupil to districts that serve large numbers of children from low-income families.

Stil, the remaining 10% amounts to hundreds of millions of dollars, which state leaders control. Republican leaders, who believe too many schools have shuttered their classrooms, want to send the money to districts that have offered at least 25 hours a week of face-to-face instruction in recent months. It’s not clear if Whitmer would accept that proposal.

The state previously sent additional federal funds to districts that offered at least 20 weekly hours of in-person instruction, prompting many districts to change their schedules in a hurry.

The new goal of 25 hours frustrated some school leaders, said Peter Spadafore, deputy executive director for external relations at the Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators.

“My membership is frustrated by the continual movement of goal posts and expectations from the state,” he said.

The latest and largest federal aid package, which accounts for most of the unallocated money, specifies that states should pass the money to districts within 60 days of receiving it.

Some education leaders, including Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, have threatened to sue if they don’t receive the money by early June, as expected.

But Spadafore said the requirement isn’t legally binding — states only have to observe it “to the extent practicable” — and the state has more time.

In-person instruction

Spadafore said he hoped lawmakers use the upcoming budget bills to clarify whether schools will be able to offer virtual instruction this fall to parents that want it.

Michigan funds schools based on how many students are occupying seats in classrooms. Last summer, amid uncertainty about the safety of in-person instruction, Michigan lawmakers tweaked the rules to give districts credit for virtual instruction.

They’d need to do so again if schools are to offer virtual classes in the fall.

Education leaders expect most students to be learning in person this fall as more people receive COVID-19 vaccinations. Some major U.S. school systems, including in New York City, say they won’t offer any virtual instruction. Michigan’s largest district, the Detroit Public Schools Community District, indicated this week that it will sharply limit online classes.

Still, some families say they aren’t ready to send their students to in-person classes, perhaps due to unusual health concerns or vaccine hesitancy.

“I do think every effort needs to be made this summer to talk with families about the importance of their children coming back live and in person, going over with them all of the protocols that will be followed so they will be comfortable sending their children back,” said David Hecker, president of the American Federation of Teachers Michigan.

“There are parents that are still not going to feel safe to send their children back to school,” he added. “Districts have to figure out an option for that, because we have to educate those kids also.”

Teacher evaluations, A to F grades for schools, and third-grade retention

The Biden administration required states to administer standardized tests as usual this year. However, they said states could skip accountability measures based on those tests.

That includes teacher evaluations, which are based partly on test scores, and the A to F grades that Michigan assigns to schools based largely on how their students perform on standardized tests.

Pausing those policies this year would require action from the state Legislature.

Casandra Ulbrich, Democratic president of the Michigan Board of Education, said the state test “has not been provided to every child in the state and will have some serious flaws” due to the pandemic. She said the state’s accountability rules should be paused this year.

Teachers say they can’t be fairly evaluated during the pandemic. In many cases they spent almost no time working with students in person. Teachers have also argued that many students were not engaged and too many weren’t showing up every day, if they showed up at all.

“We don’t think there should be any evaluations this year,” Hecker said, adding that most evaluations have already been completed at this point.

Hecker said that any legislative action on the issue appears unlikely, but many teachers aren’t prepared to give up.

A group of DPSCD teachers spoke out against the evaluation process at the district’s May 18 board meeting, arguing that teachers “should be afforded the same grace shown to students” who were allowed to skip state tests.

Legislators are, however, taking a closer look at Michigan’s third-grade reading law. Beginning this year, the state is supposed to hold back third graders who score below 1252 on the English portion of the state exam, or “not proficient.” An “advanced” English score for third-graders is between 1317 and 1357. Letters are going out to families of nearly 2,700 of these students beginning today.

A GOP-backed bill would eliminate the retention requirement this year, but institute a similar requirement next year for fourth graders as well as third graders.

Early childhood transformation

Ongoing disputes between Whitmer and Republican leaders have waylaid $1.4 billion in federal funds for Michigan’s child care system.

“We’re starting to see this money flow out in other states and having a significant impact on child care,” said Matt Gillard, president of Michigan’s Children, an advocacy group.

Gillard and other advocates say the funding could be transformational for a system marred by high costs, a lack of access for low-income families, and a profoundly unstable educator workforce.

Various early childhood groups have published detailed wish lists for the funds.

But it is far from clear how the money will be used. Competing proposals from the GOP-led House and Senate take very different approaches. The House would send almost all of the $1.4 billion to child care providers in the form of reimbursement increases and grants, while the Senate would require that half of the total funds — more than $716 million — be pushed through to parents through reduced child care tuitions.

Gillard said the House’s approach is better for the child care industry because it would allow the state to provide more support directly to providers. Providers often struggle to pay staff and offer high-quality care, especially in low-income communities, because the subsidy payments they receive from the state are so low.

“This wouldn’t happen in any other industry. If they’re talking about grants to restaurants, they’re not saying, you have to reduce your menu prices,” Gillard said of the Senate proposal. “Why are they singling child care out like this?”

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