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Little action expected on education issues as Michigan lawmakers wind down term

The Michigan State Capitol on a sunny day in Lansing.

Lawmakers are scheduled to head back to Lansing on Dec. 3 to finish out the legislative session.

Di’Amond Moore / Detroit Free Press

After the last midterm election, Michigan lawmakers voted on 300 bills and ended the term with an exhausting 21-hour day as Republicans looked to push through controversial legislation before Democrat Gretchen Whitmer took office.

Don’t expect the next few weeks to look anything like that. 

Lawmakers may gather during the lame-duck period before their terms end Dec. 31, but the departing GOP majority isn’t likely to use its waning days to try passing anything that Whitmer would veto. 

“I hear rumors we might not even be doing lame duck,” said state Rep. John Damoose, R-Harbor Springs. “I’m frustrated, because I have some bills I’d like to see passed.”

Currently, the House is scheduled to meet for six days — Dec. 6-8 and 13-15 — but some of those session days could be canceled, and others will likely be filled with departing lawmakers’ farewell speeches rather than legislative deliberations.

House Republican spokesperson Gideon D’Assandro said leaders haven’t yet confirmed a schedule for the lame duck period. Senate GOP spokesperson Matt Sweeney did not respond to questions about lame duck plans.

“Lame duck is likely to be a tame duck,” said state Sen. Jeff Irwin, an Ann Arbor Democrat. “There’s not going to be a flurry of crazed action, as is sometimes the case, which is unsurprising. What happened during the election doesn’t create a ton of incentive for anyone to do that.”

In 2018, Democratic lawmakers accused the Republican majority of overreaching  in the weeks before Whitmer took power. 

Among the lame-duck laws passed then was an unpopular GOP-backed law requiring the Michigan Department of Education to grade schools on an A to F scale so that parents could better gauge performance. 

Starting Jan. 1, Democrats will control both houses of the Legislature. Even so, there would be no reason now for Republicans to ram through something partisan just to have Whitmer veto it, said Ellen Lipton, chairperson of the Michigan State Board of Education Legislative Committee and a former Democratic legislator.

Rather than picking fights, Lipton said, lawmakers will be looking for easy wins on issues where there’s general agreement and on bills that have already passed one of the two chambers.

One package of bills that fits those criteria would provide help for students with dyslexia, a learning disorder that can affect word recognition and reading ability.  

The bills would require schools to screen for dyslexia, provide extra support for struggling students, and ensure that all students receive phonics-based reading instruction. They passed the Senate unanimously in May but stalled in the House Education Committee.

The departing committee chairperson, Pamela Hornberger of Chesterfield Township, who lost a tight state Senate race, has not said why the bills haven’t been scheduled for a hearing.  

Irwin, who has been shepherding the bills through the Legislature, said there’s still time.

“It’s one of those few (packages) that is completely bipartisan,” he said. “It promotes literacy. It will help thousands and thousands of kids. Employers support it. And it’s gotten a tremendous amount of support.” And, he said, declining reading proficiency underscores the urgency of passing the bills.

“If we pass these bills and bring phonetic awareness back into the classroom we’re going to help thousands of kids learn to read earlier and better,” Irwin said.

A couple of other bills have also passed one chamber and could be taken up by the other during the lame duck session.

Programming could count as a language credit

One bill would allow computer programming courses to replace world language credits required for high school graduation. It passed the House 59-49 in May and is now teed up for a vote in the Senate Committee on Education and Career Readiness.

Committee Chairperson Lana Theis, a Brighton Republican, has not said publicly whether she plans to schedule a vote.

The Republican bill had some crossover support from Democrats in the House. It has the backing of the business community, which says computer programming is a skill relevant to future jobs.

The Michigan Department of Education opposes the bill. 

Whitmer has not taken a public position.

WorkKeys test could be optional

The House in July 2021 overwhelmingly passed a bill that would eliminate a requirement for high school juniors to take the WorkKeys career readiness test.

Districts or individual students could still opt in, and the state would cover the cost of the test, under the legislation.

Michigan juniors have been taking the test since 2007, when it became part of the Michigan Merit Exam. The state spends about $4.4 million a year for about 105,000 students to take the test.

Proponents of the legislation say that money could be better spent on Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate exams most test-takers now pay for themselves.

Opponents say the WorkKeys tests help employers evaluate workers and help students discover career pathways.

The Senate education committee held hearings on the bill earlier this year and recommended passage. It now awaits action on the Senate floor. 

Tracie Mauriello covers state education policy for Chalkbeat Detroit and Bridge Michigan. Reach her at tmauriello@chalkbeat.org.

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