Legislature meets into weekend to seal school reform deal

LANSING, MI – The Legislature has begun its winter break that was delayed as lawmakers met into the weekend to debate and approve major school reforms.


2009 was another year in the Legislature marked by deadlock and bickering as lawmakers once again barely scraped together a budget. And then came December.
In the space of two weeks, the Legislature approved a pair of groundbreaking policy changes. The first was a new law banning smoking in most public places. It was signed last week by Governor Granholm.

This past weekend, lawmaker put in long hours before wrapping up their work for the year by adopting a long list of hard-fought education reforms.

The talks broke off at least twice as strong egos and passionate beliefs clashed on the best course for fixing failing schools.

"I think it got a little blustery, more blustery than it needed to at times, but at the end of the day, it got done," says Republican Wayne Kuipers. He chairs the Senate Education Committee and was one of the key negotiators. He's been advocating for more charter schools during a decade serving in the Legislature. But Kuipers is not a fan of raising the state's dropout age to 18.

"If you look hard enough there are probably things in here that both sides are going to hate. There's stuff that both sides are going to like and, historically, that probably means you're close to a good deal," Kuipers says.

Cyber-schools and charters will compete with failing public schools. A state school reform chief will be able to take over troubled schools that fail to improve. There will be merit pay for teachers in the best-performing classrooms, and it will be easier to fire teachers.

Some of these ideas were considered impossible to enact as recently as a year ago. But the desire to compete for up to $400 million in federal "Race to the Top" school reform funds changed the landscape.

The politically conservative Kuipers is skeptical of "Race to the Top" and the conditions attached to the money. But he says the Obama administration's offer of money to help pay for fixing failing schools is what opened the door to the most sweeping education reforms in Michigan in 20 years. And Democrats agreed, even if getting to a deal wasn't easy.

"You know, they had a list of things that they thought were important. We had a list of things," Tim Melton says.

Representative Melton chairs the House Education Committee and was the lead Democratic negotiator. He said getting to an agreement on charter schools was probably the toughest part of the discussions.

"We're going to close the bad ones. We're going to let the best operators in the state expand, and we're going to let the best ones in the country come into areas of high need," Melton says.

But the chance to merely compete for Race to the Top money was not enough for some lawmakers, including Democratic Representative Rebekuh Warren.

"It's a tremendous number of reforms happening in a very short period of time, to put Michigan in the running to maybe be one of eight states that will be eligible for some federal money, the reforms we have to live with forever, the chance at the money is a pretty long chance at this point," says Warren.

Union leaders say they feel betrayed by a deal that attacks collective bargaining rights and makes it easier for state bureaucrats to control what goes on in classrooms.

David Hecker is with the Michigan Federation of Teachers.

"And we're specifically very concerned about provisions that basically take away the voice of the people who know education - teachers and the staff in struggling schools that will be taken over by the school reform officer," he says.

But Governor Granholm likes the reforms and showed up at the Capitol in jeans and a sweatshirt to personally lobby lawmakers. She was greeted with applause when she walked into a closed-door meeting with House Democrats.

And she pronounced herself satisfied with the results of the negotiations.

"I will absolutely sign it," the Governor says.

She'll get that chance, and when the Legislature returns in January, lawmakers will face the new challenge of finding a way to pay for schools as property values and sales tax revenues continue to slide. We'll see if there's still the same political will in the Legislature to deal and compromise in 2010.