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Lame-duck lawmakers could derail improvement-focused A-F rating system planned for Detroit

Some Michigan lawmakers are using this year’s lame-duck legislative session to try to push through a controversial bill that would require letter grades for every public school in the state.

If it passes the legislature, it would derail plans already underway to create an A-F grading system for Detroit’s public schools, a system being designed to take into account the unique issues — including poverty and enrollment instability — facing schools in the city.

“What we’re doing would no longer exist,” said Stephanie Young, executive director of the Community Education Commission in Detroit, which took on the task of creating a letter grading system that was mandated under a 2016 state law. The commission plans to vote on the  plan Dec. 17 after spending months developing it and getting feedback.

And it will anger many school officials across the state, who argue such an important issue shouldn’t be decided during a lame-duck session.

Rep. Tim Kelly, the Saginaw Township Republican who chairs the House Education Reform Committee, is making an effort to pass the bill he introduced earlier this year because he believes it will help reverse the academic slide Michigan schools have been on for years. If schools receive poor letter grades, he said, it’ll put pressure on them to improve.

“We’re chasing (states) that are beating the pants off of us,” said Kelly, who has no interest in adopting the city plan. “We’re at the bottom of the barrel.”

It’s an important issue in Michigan because letter grades could be used to make punitive decisions about chronically poor-performing schools, such as closure.

More than a dozen other states in the nation — including Florida, Indiana and Arizona — use a letter-grading system to rate schools.

In Michigan, though, Detroit is the only community in the state required to have such a system for charter schools and the city’s school district. That requirement came as part of the sweeping 2016 legislation that resolved the debt in the district.

But when that law was passed in 2016, it was with the stipulation that if a statewide system was developed, it would take precedence.

Lawmakers for years have failed to pass such a system. The state Education Department in 2017 initially planned to make an A-F system part of its plan to comply with federal law. But after widespread resistance from the state’s education community, as well as some members of the State Board of Education, the education department backed off.

Meanwhile, last month, the city’s education commission rolled out its plan during a series of community meetings. More are scheduled for the coming weeks, Young said. The letter grades aren’t set to be issued until next fall at the earliest.

The city’s plan is for schools to be rewarded heavily for the amount of improvement seen in test scores. That’s important in a high-poverty community like Detroit, where most of the schools are struggling.

Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti is part of the 11-member commission appointed by Mayor Mike Duggan earlier this year. Hired in May 2017, Vitti arrived in Detroit from Florida, where the state has used a letter grading accountability system for years.

Vitti has contended that Detroit schools shouldn’t be the only ones to comply with an A-F system.

“Education challenges go farther and are much deeper than Detroit, although we are often used as the scapegoat,” Vitti said. He said Detroit is an example “of what happens when an entire state lacks the vision for K-12 education support and reform.”

Still, he said, the commission team that has worked to develop the A-F system for the city’s public schools has “invested a lot of time and resources this year … the Legislature can use our model for statewide implementation. It is thoughtful and fair.”

Katie Rae Stolper, the director of operations and accountability for the commission, agreed. She said the lessons the commission has learned could remain relevant.

“There’s a lot that we have learned through this process about engaging the community to develop this system … we hope we would be able to share.”

Although Kelly agrees that all schools should be graded, he is unlikely to support adopting the Detroit system statewide. There are significant differences between what’s in the bill and what’s in the works in Detroit. Plus, Kelly said that while he thinks the intentions of the commission are good, what they’re planning “will continue to mask some poor performance.” He didn’t provide any specifics.

So what are the differences between the bill and what’s planned in Detroit? Here’s one key example: The Detroit system gives schools credit for the performance of “continuously enrolled” students who’ve been in a school for two full school years. That’s important given the high rates of chronic absenteeism and the number of students who change schools frequently, leading to enrollment (and academic) instability. Kelly’s bill has no such language.

A Chalkbeat Detroit investigation with Bridge Magazine, published last month, found that 1 in 3 Detroit elementary students switched schools every year.

Another difference: The Detroit system also takes into account improvement in test performance for the lowest-performing 30% of students in a school.

“We need to be focusing efforts and energy on those students,” said John Barker, a school accountability expert who has been working with the commission to develop the Detroit system.

The bill is among education-related legislation being pushed through lame-duck session, as Republicans — who’ve controlled the Legislature and the governor’s office for eight years — seek to pass legislation before Democrat Gretchen Whitmer takes office as governor.

Kelly’s effort got a social media boost from current Gov. Rick Snyder, who himself has advocated for A-F grades for schools. He tweeted Nov. 23 that it was part of his 2018 agenda and noted, “But there’s still time!”

Ari Adler, spokesman for Snyder, said letter grades empower parents.

“They are a transparent, easy-to-understand tool that families can use to get more involved in their children’s education,” Adler said.

Kelly said last week he’d prefer the governor do more to promote the bill, saying he “needs to do more than tweet … he needs to call recalcitrant Republicans asap.”

“It’s all on us. We need to come up with the 55 votes,” Kelly said of Republicans in the House. He added this about the bill’s chances: “It’s a difficult lift.”

Some of the strongest opposition is coming from the education community.

The Tri-County Alliance for Public Education — a group made up of superintendents in Macomb, Oakland, and Wayne counties — has urged lawmakers not to take up any education policy issues that will have long-term effects on schools statewide. The state board adopted a similar statement last month.

Paula Herbert, president of the Michigan Education Association — the state’s largest teachers union — and Tom McMillin, a Republican member of the state board of education, issued a joint statement in which they each objected to the A-F bill.

“This new grading scheme will do nothing to improve low performing schools nor will it increase student achievement, ” McMillin said. “It will take us backward in our efforts to reduce over-reliance on standardized testing and its dominance over the education of our children.”

Why vote during lame duck? Adler said it’s because “those are the only session days remaining during Gov. Snyder’s term. He has been advocating for this since the beginning of his administration and he is almost out of time to get this done.”

How they compare

The Michigan legislature is considering a bill that would grade schools A-F based on test scores and other factors. A citywide education organization in Detroit is about to vote on a letter grade system with different criteria. Here’s how the two proposals compare. Click below to expand.