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Lame duck Michigan lawmakers just voted on A-F grades for schools. Here’s what you need to know.

The Michigan House, in the wee hours of the morning, passed the controversial bill that requires creating an A-F letter grading system for state schools.

The bill stirred controversy over concerns that it could strip power from elected education officials and unfairly stigmatize struggling schools. Even though the bill that passed was different from the one that has been debated for months, many issues remain.

We slogged through all 74 pages to break down what this legislation will mean for you, if it passes. Here are the highlights:

It’s not a done deal:

The bill now goes on to the state Senate, after passing the House on the narrowest of margins: 56 to 53. Fifty-five votes were needed for passage.

If the Senate, which is expected to take up the bill next week, OKs the bill, it still would need to be signed by Gov. Rick Snyder. His spokesman isn’t saying whether the governor would sign the current version.

Snyder “will need to review the bill closely before he makes that decision, especially since it just went through a number of revisions,” before House passage.

An A or an F:

The state Department of Education would be required — by Sept. 1, 2019 — to issue letter grades in five categories:

  • The number of students whose scores on state exams indicate they are proficient in math and English language arts.
  • The percentage of students who achieve an adequate amount of improvement in math and English language arts on state exams.
  • The percentage of students who are still learning English, and who also achieve an adequate amount of improvement toward becoming proficient in the language.
  • High school graduation rates.
  • The school’s overall academic performance and how it compares to schools across the state with similar demographics.

What’s new in this latest version of the bill? There originally were six categories. House members removed chronic absenteeism and the percentage of students who took state exams from the list. They added the last category.

Schools will be ranked, too:

By Sept. 1, the department will also have to assign rankings of significantly above average, above average, average, below average, or significantly below average in three categories:

  • The rate of students who are chronically absent.
  • Percentage of students who took state exams.
  • The performance of student subgroups and how that compares to statewide results for subgroups. Subgroups in Michigan include students of color, students from low-income homes, students learning English, and students with special education needs.

Peer review panel:

The latest version of the bill calls for the state education department to develop the A-F accountability system. But the department would have to submit its proposed standards for determining letter grades and rankings to a peer review panel.

The panel wouldn’t have the power to approve or reject the standards. But it would be required to submit its findings about the proposed standards to the department and to the House and Senate education committees.

Rep. Tim Kelly, the Republican from Saginaw Township who authored the bill, said that if the panel doesn’t like the system the department creates, it would make that clear to lawmakers, who would have the power to take action.

Who’s on the panel? The five members would have to include five “individuals with expertise in school accountability systems.” Three of the five would be appointed by the governor, and the other two would be appointed by leaders of the House and Senate.

What’s new? Previous versions of the bill called for a 13-member commission that would have had far broader powers. It would have been charged with creating the A-F system — taking control of the system out of the hands of the elected state Board of Education and the education department it oversees.

No immediate impact:

The House didn’t give the bill immediate effect, which means it won’t go into effect until 90 days after it’s signed by Snyder. If it clears the Senate the same way, it would mean incoming Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, and not Snyder, would control the panel.

Detroit’s plan derailed?

If the A-F plan is enacted, it will kill plans underway in Detroit to develop a citywide letter grading system for public schools. It was a requirement of the 2016 legislation that resolved the debt in the Detroit school district. But when that law was passed, it was with the stipulation that if a statewide system was developed, it would take precedence.

The Community Education Association, which took on the task of creating the city letter grading system, has rolled out the plan in recent months and planned to vote on it Monday. But that meeting was canceled.

Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, a member of the commission, took to Twitter on Thursday afternoon to express his disappointment with the House vote, saying the commission’s work was “disrespected and ignored.”


The education department would have to develop standards for identifying the lowest performing schools, described as “comprehensive support and improvement schools.” The number of such schools “shall not exceed a number equal to 5 percent of all public schools in the state,” the legislation says.

Which schools would meet the definition? A school would have to fall into any one of these categories.

  • A high school that graduates fewer than two-thirds of its students.
  • A school that receives an F in each of the five categories.
  • A school that meets any other criteria under the federal education law.

Is there a hammer?

Yes, but it’s unclear how heavy it will be. By Dec. 1, 2019, the department would have to develop “accountability measures to impose on public schools,” that are in the bottom 5 percent. But the legislation doesn’t say what those potential measures should be. Currently, the state has the power to close chronically low-performing schools, though it has never exercised that option.