The countdown is over. Today is officially the first day of school in Michigan — and for the state’s largest school district.

So now that all the supplies and spiffy new uniforms have been purchased, it’s time to turn our attention to more weighty issues that will be important during the 2019-20 school year. 

Our top things to know about the new school year include issues such as third-grade reading, a budget impasse, and a fix for Detroit’s crumbling schools.

Budget impasse

If you’ve been paying attention to the news lately, you know that school leaders across the state are becoming increasingly frustrated by the lack of movement toward adopting a state budget.

This matters because no state budget means school districts and charter schools had to start the school year not knowing how much state funding they’re going to get this year. Because of that, some districts have delayed big hiring and spending decisions.

Things could get really difficult if there’s a shutdown and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and legislative leaders aren’t able to resolve their budget differences by the time the first state aid payment to schools is issued next month. How a district survives that will depend on how much reserve funding they have. At a recent meeting, Detroit school district board members learned the district has about nine weeks of reserve funding — meaning they would have to miss October and November state aid payments for things to be really dire.

Third-grade reading

It’s high-stakes time for Michigan’s third graders. The state’s Read by Grade Three law has been on the books since 2016. But this is the year schools are required to hold back third graders who are a year or more behind in reading. 

MSU researchers who are studying the impact of the law estimate that between 2,000 and 5,000 students could be held back. 

But here’s the reality: The law allows for a number of exemptions that you can expect many districts to use to cut back on the number of children held back — and there are a lot of school leaders who believe mandatory retention is ineffective. 

New year for Detroit schools

It will be a critical third year of reform for the Detroit Public Schools Community District. The year is beginning on a relatively positive note, given M-STEP results released last week show the district made across-the-board gains. If you’re a high school student, this year will bring changes to how you learn math and English language arts. All students will see the impact of tweaks to the student code of conduct, which gives school leaders more flexibility in meting out punishment. Several new schools are opening, including one focused on engineering and social justice on the Marygrove College campus, and one that is billed as the district’s first wall-to-wall Montessori school. 

Meanwhile, more schools will be fully staffed. The year is beginning with 75 teacher vacancies, down from 275 two years ago. And Superintendent Nikolai Vitti has said 60% of schools will be fully staffed.

Facility needs in Detroit schools

If you’re a parent with children attending schools in the Detroit district, you know all about the facility needs. Last year, a review put the needs at more than $500 million. The price tag could grow to $1.4 billion in a few years if nothing is done.

But officials in the district are hoping to do something about it. They’ll start by engaging the community in meetings that will begin in October. Vitti said in this recent Q&A that he wants the community to have a voice in decisions about what happens with district schools. 

Fixing the problems is one thing. The district will also have to determine how to pay for the fixes.

Fewest charters opening

Has the number of charter schools in Michigan peaked? Just three new charter schools are opening in Michigan this year, the fewest number of charter schools to open in a single year since charters were first allowed in the mid 1990s. And with six having closed at the end of last year, the total number of charter schools in the state is now down to 294, according to a state charter advocacy group. There were 300 charter schools a few years ago.

The three new charter schools are opening in Flint, Plymouth Township and Redford Township.

A-F grades

Students get letter grades. Now schools will too — just not as soon as lawmakers wanted. Controversial legislation passed during the lame duck session in December required the Michigan Department of Education to issue letter grades for public schools in the state by Sept. 1. But that deadline came and went without the grades, in part because state education officials say some key data needed to calculate the grades isn’t available yet. 

Expect to see them issued later in the school year. 

Meanwhile, a local effort to issue letter grades to district and charter schools in Detroit is on track. Those grades will be issued in early 2020.

Teacher evaluations

Expect to see a renewed debate in Michigan about how teachers are evaluated — and how much of their evaluation should be based on test scores.

Last year was supposed to bring a big change, with 40% of a teacher’s evaluation based on student test scores. In the previous year, it was 25%.

But lawmakers essentially punted that change to this year, keeping the percentage at 25%, but for just one year. 

New state superintendent

After a lengthy search, Michigan has a new education leader. Michael Rice, who was superintendent in the Kalamazoo Public Schools when he was hired in May, officially began the new role last month. 

It remains to be seen how influential Rice will be in helping steer Michigan’s education system toward the top, after years of flat or declining test results.