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Legislature, Whitmer reach deal on return-to-school bills

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Michigan schools that deem it safe to provide in-person classes during the coronavirus pandemic would have to prioritize the option for K-5 students under legislation that would also largely base districts’ state funding on last year’s pupil count to account for enrollment uncertainty in coming weeks.

The bills, which were approved 23-15 and 24-14 by the Senate in a rare Saturday session, reflect a deal announced late Friday by legislative leaders and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. The House will vote Monday.

The agreement, which does not include state school funding for the state fiscal year that begins in one-and-a-half months, was criticized by superintendents and backed by teacher unions. It would waive a requirement that schools have 1,098 hours and 180 days of instruction. They must still provide the educational or course content that would have been delivered in a typical academic year.

Republicans agreed to remove a House-proposed requirement that schools offer in-person learning to K-5 students. Many districts, facing pressure from teachers and mixed reaction among parents, are starting with remote-only instruction due to COVID-19.

Districts and charter schools would have to outline an “extended continuity of learning” plan for approval by the local intermediate school district or charter authorizer, including the method of instruction — in person, online or other remote means and whether it is real-time or not. School boards would have to reauthorize their plan once a month and take public comment.

Schools’ funding is based on their number of students. Under current law, it is a blend — between a fall count weighted at 90% and the prior spring’s count weighted at 10%. The legislation would change the blend to 75% from last year’s count and 25% that normally would have applied this year, costing the state $45 million because enrollment is projected to drop further.

The bills also would revise how attendance is linked to funding. Currently, districts must have 75% average daily attendance to get their full state aid. Instead, schools would have to make sure there are two-way interactions between 75% of students and their teachers.

Districts also would have to administer a benchmark assessment to K-8 students twice, including once in the first nine weeks. The data could not be used for school accountability purposes but would be compiled in a mandatory state report, due next summer, on the number and percentage of students who are significantly behind grade level.

The Democratic governor and leaders of both parties in the Republican-controlled Legislature issued a joint statement saying the deal will give students, parents and educators “much-needed support, flexibility and certainty as we approach the new school year. They deserve peace of mind about what the next few months will hold in store, and this legislation will provide it”

The agreement, however, does not yet tell schools their per-student funding despite their starting in late August or early September. Michigan is bracing for a $3 billion budget shortfall because of lower tax revenues associated with the virus outbreak.

Groups representing school administrators and school boards said the process was not what they had hoped for, and they hoped the next few weeks would allow for “much-needed stakeholder input on the details of these bills and improvements to make them more workable in practice.”

The Tri-County Alliance for Public Education, which includes superintendents in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties, was more critical.

“The hurried passage of the ‘return to learn’ plan in the Senate demonstrates checking a box instead of doing the work required to respond to schools’ actual needs for the fall,” said executive director Robert McCann.

But Senate Education and Career Readiness Committee Chairwoman Lana Theis, a Brighton Republican, said the plan empowers districts to make the best health and safety decisions for their communities.

“Entrusting local education leaders with the flexibility to make more and better decisions will increase opportunities for educational enrichment and help improve student achievement,” she said.

Whitmer closed schools in March to combat the coronavirus. Under an order she issued in June, schools cannot open for in-person instruction unless regions are at least in phase four of her economic reopening plan. All regions are in either phase four or five currently.