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Last minute addition of A-F grading system by Michigan lawmakers may not meet federal guidelines

The state’s controversial new A-F school letter grading law may have reached a setback now that state education officials say they’ve been told that it conflicts with federal rules.

That’s what officials from the Michigan Department of Education say they heard from the state Attorney General’s office recently.

But the new piece of information raises a big question: Can that conflict derail the new state law, which requires the state to develop a system for issuing letter grades to schools in five separate categories?

Ackley said the department is having conversations with the U.S. Department of Education to address the areas in which the A-F law conflicts with the federal education law. States could lose federal funding if they’re not in compliance.

This all began back in December, during the state Legislature’s lame duck session. As lawmakers debated the A-F law, Sheila Alles — the interim state superintendent — wrote a letter to lawmakers warning that some aspects of the proposal would violate federal law.

Specifically, she said the law exempts some alternative schools from receiving letter grades, and exempts special education students from the state’s participation rate on state exams. Both violate federal rules, she said.

Lawmakers still passed the legislation, and then-Gov. Rick Snyder signed it into law in his last days in office in December.

Earlier this year, the state education department asked the attorney general’s office to provide guidance. And earlier this month, the head of the state board of education asked lawmakers to delay implementation of the law. The state department has until August 1 to develop the system and until Sept. 1 to issue the letter grades.

Legislative leaders, though, have been pushing the education department for a timeline for the law’s implementation.

“We’re in the process of completing that,” said Ackley, who noted that Alles has met in the last two weeks with Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, a Republican from Clarklake.

“It’s a lot of very detailed work. We’re doing our best to build a timeline,” he said.

Amber McCann, spokeswoman for Shirkey, acknowledged the meeting with Alles and said Shirkey is “willing to meet again to discuss how the legislature may be helpful in removing obstacles to implementation.

State education officials have been vocal in their concerns that adoption of the A-F law meant the department would be in charge of developing and administering two school accountability systems — one required by the federal education law and one for the state A-F law.

“Our intention is to get this done, but we’re not sure with what pace we can do it,” Ackley said. “We’re doing everything we can do. But we’re going to have two systems.”

The existing system provides a numerical rating of schools, from 0 to 100, based on a number of categories, such as academic performance and school quality. Individual ratings are also given in up to six categories.

The guidance from the attorney general’s office comes a little more than a week after a city commission in Detroit opted to move ahead with its own letter grading accountability system for public schools in the city. Detroit’s letter grades place a greater emphasis on academic growth.