LANSING (AP) - The Republican-led House approved legislation Thursday to expand a school reform program and give the state control over more of Michigan's lowest-performing public schools, sparking a fiery debate in the Legislature over the course of action needed to help persistently failing students succeed in the classroom.
The bill passed 57-53 on a mostly party-lines vote. It would allow the Education Achievement Authority, currently in place in 15 Detroit schools, to take the reins at Michigan schools in the bottom 5 percent of achievement, based on student test scores, for three straight years.
Majority Republicans say the program, which Republican Gov. Rick Snyder has called one of his top legislative priorities, is urgently needed to give students in failing schools a chance. But Democrats say it is dismantling the state's public school system by usurping local control and implementing an experimental and unproven educational model.
"There is no magic potion to education reform," but the authority is "another step to ensuring that our children are not stuck in failing schools," said Republican Rep. Aric Nesbitt of Lawton, in support of the bill. "Something has to be done. We cannot wait any longer."
But Democratic House Minority Leader Tim Greimel of Auburn Hills told reporters that while the state needs to do more to help the struggling schools, weakening of local power is not the answer, calling it a "very misguided and heavy-handed erosion of local control by big government Republicans."
The authority acts as a separate state-run school district, controlled by a chancellor who serves as school superintendent for each of the low-performing schools. The power of locally elected school boards is shifted to a board of seven members, five of which are appointed by the governor, and school faculty at the school would have to apply for new positions.
Schools would begin to be phased into the program 12 schools at a time starting in the 2014 school year, and the total number of schools would be capped at 50.
Michigan's state school code already provides guidelines for the takeover of low-performing schools, but this bill would provide a vehicle for which that can happen. Supporters say the legislation is important to clarify the state code and establish a system to ensure only a certain number of schools can be put under state control.
Under the authority, classes meet 210 days a year, instead of 180 days like in other Michigan schools. Students are also grouped by "instructional level" instead of age or grade level, which is designed to allow students that master a subject to immediately advance instead of waiting for the beginning of a new school year.
A similar bill introduced last year never made it out of committee, but Thursday's approval in the House could mean the bill may make its way to Snyder's desk this year. The bill now heads to the Republican-controlled Senate.
Greimel said that by weakening local and community involvement, the program takes away "some of the most important determinants of student success."
But Republican Rep. Lisa Posthumus Lyons of Alto, chairwoman of the House Education committee and the bill's sponsor, said "if the local school districts can't get the job done, the state must.
"The state has a constitutional obligation to provide children with a free and fair public education, and I will do everything possible to ensure the education they do receive sets them up for success," she said.
An amendment added Thursday would allow schools on the failing list to come up with agreement with their intermediate school district to take control and help turn the school rather than entering the authority.
Republicans criticized Democrats for keeping students in struggling schools, without offering an alternative plan.
"Lansing has sat here and made sure as long as the adults have been taken care of, the kids in the failing schools can just continue to fail," said Republican Rep. Tom McMillin of Rochester Hills.
Greimel said Democrats believe implementing longer school days and increasing funding for schools, while maintaining local control, is a better solution. He said Democrats plan to introduce a package of bills on educational reform but did not say when.
Schools in the authority would be able to leave the program if the test scores are improved enough to bring them out of the bottom 5 percent for four consecutive years.
Legislators have also clashed on the wisdom of expanding a program that has only been in place since last September.
Lyons recently said in a statement that almost 20 percent of students under the authority have already achieved one-year's growth in reading and math, according to assessments.
But Greimel said he didn't understand why Snyder, the businessman-turned-governor who often relies on facts and figures, would want to move forward with a program that has few measurable variables pointing to its success.
"The data is simply not there to blindly apply a badly designed, cookie-cutter model on the entire state," said Democratic Rep. Collene Lamonte of Montague. "Our kids deserve better than to be test subjects for this educational experiment."
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