Q&A: How Michigan lawmakers differ on Detroit school revamp

AP News
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Posted: May 05, 2016 6:38 PM
Q&A: How Michigan lawmakers differ on Detroit school revamp

LANSING, Mich. (AP) — The fate of Detroit's debt-ridden school district rests with the Michigan Legislature, where lawmakers have passed widely different restructuring plans and have just six weeks to resolve their differences before a summer adjournment.

Teachers are back at work after more mass sick-outs kept 45,000 students from attending for two days. The union has received assurances that teachers whose compensation is spread out over a full year will be paid this summer.

But emergency aid previously approved for the state-managed district will run out by June 30, putting summer programs at risk and raising doubts about whether the doors will be open next school year.

A $500 million proposal approved early Thursday by House Republicans — many angered by the sick-outs — includes provisions criticized as anti-union. A $717 million plan OK'd by the Senate in March has bipartisan support.

Some questions and answers about what legislators are debating:

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IS THERE ANY CONSENSUS?

There is agreement on the framework of an overhaul first proposed by Republican Gov. Rick Snyder a year ago. The 97-school district would be divided similarly to how General Motors was split into two companies post-bankruptcy. The current district would stay intact for tax-collection purposes to retire an estimated $500 million in long-term debt now being repaid from operating funds. A new district would educate the students, and its finances would be overseen by a commission of state appointees.

Much of the blame for the money troubles can be traced to plummeting enrollment, which is a third of what it was a decade ago in part because many Detroit parents have turned to charter schools and suburban districts. Detroit Public Schools, which has been under state control for all but three years since 1999, is spending 40 percent of state per-pupil funding to repay past cash-flow borrowings. It is a liability that Snyder describes as "crushing" efforts to improve academics in the country's worst-performing district of its size.

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HOW MUCH WOULD IT COST?

Lawmakers are at odds over how much of a state bailout is needed to rescue Michigan's largest school district. While agreeing to spend around $500 million in tobacco settlement money on the debt, the House balked at allocating another $200 million for the new district's "transitional operating costs" included in the Senate bills and instead allotted $33 million. "I don't think we want to be in a situation where we pass a sum of money and then two or three months later we're right back in front of the Legislature asking for more," said Democratic Sen. David Knezek, of Dearborn Heights.

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WHAT IS THE MAIN STICKING POINT?

Tension surrounds an effort endorsed by Snyder, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and the Senate to create an A-to-F accountability system and a commission of mayoral appointees to make decisions about opening and closing schools, including an uncapped number of publicly funded charters that enroll about 36,000 students. It has faced stiff resistance from the school-choice lobby, which has sway in the Republican-led Legislature and contends the commission is designed to bolster traditional schools at the expense of charters. GOP House Speaker Kevin Cotter said it would "choke out" charters.

But supporters say the Senate plan would automatically allow for the replication of high-quality A- and B-rated charter schools. "There are some great charter providers in the city. But there's some charters that woefully underperform and deserve closing — the same as there are some public schools ... that don't do well and probably should find the same fate," said Sen. Bert Johnson, a Highland Park Democrat whose district includes portions of Detroit.

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WHAT ARE OTHER DIFFERENCES?

Unlike the Senate, the House plan would prohibit current labor contracts from being transferred to the new district and — in an apparent swipe at the union after the sick-outs — enact tougher anti-strike provisions such as boosting fines and letting the state superintendent and attorney general challenge strikes as illegal. The House also voted to implement merit-based pay for teachers and administrators and allow for uncertified teachers. Labor unions blasted the bills as "some of the most despicable anti-student, anti-public school, anti-teacher provisions we've seen." Other differences include how quickly residents could elect a school board and the process of hiring a superintendent.

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WHAT'S NEXT?

The bills appear headed to a conference committee for further debate. Republican Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof said fixing Detroit's schools requires bipartisanship — not a GOP-only approach — because people in Detroit must buy in for the restructuring to work. "We — the state — and the city and thought leaders in Detroit have woefully failed (the kids) for a period of time. We can't continue to do that."