In a case of what might be some of the worst political timing in recent memory, Michigan legislative Republicans rolled out their version of a Return to Learn plan for schools for the coming fall just a week before the actual Return to School Roadmap will be released by Governor Whitmer's office.
The recommendation, which largely leaves the difficult questions regarding student and staff health and safety protocols to be determined by county health departments, also includes an appropriations bill that is being trumpeted as a $1.3 billion investment in public education. But as school districts across the state face possible layoffs and brace for tough decisions in the coming months, it is important to know that the proposal is really nothing more than money to backfill the massive cut schools are facing for the recently concluded 2019-20 school year. It does nothing to backfill the equally large hole schools are facing in the 2020-21 school year, nor to make the additional investment schools are going to need to cover the increased costs they face as they look to reopen in the shadow of COVID-19.
Let's take a closer look.
The appropriations bill is relatively straightforward. It proposes "$1,170,000,000.00 to provide payments to districts equal to $800.00 for each pupil in membership in the district for 2019-2020" which the district may spend on a variety of things from devices and hotspots to professional development. But a provision hidden at the end of the list allowable uses points more accurately to the intent of these dollars. Districts could use this allocation to cover "Other expenses incurred after March 1, 2020 as part of a robust distance learning plan and safe return to school including, but not limited to, salaries and benefit costs."
For most districts, that "other expenses" category is almost certainly where this money will go because of what the legislation leaves unaddressed. Michigan schools face a current year (2019-20) budget shortfall that now looks to be somewhere north of $1.2 billion and another shortfall next year (2020-21) projected to be almost as large. So rather than being able to use this money to pay for their increased costs or plan ahead for 2020-21, districts should view the proffered money as little more than dollars to backfill a current year budget hole.
The bill also proposes:
- $53 million for "teacher hazard and overtime pay premiums." This comes out to a one-time $500 per person payment to classroom teachers.
- $80 million to Intermediate School Districts to assist schools in coordinating and implementing distance learning plans and safe learning measures (though this could also end up mostly being used to backfill budget deficits if ISDs share in the cuts local districts face).
Health & Safety Protocols
The questions on the minds of most educators right now have to do with what health and safety protocols schools will need to accommodate next year and what changes will need to be made to class size, instruction, and schedules as a result of these changes. Unfortunately, the proposed legislation offers almost no specificity on what those requirements will look like. Instead, the proposal punts these difficult decisions to county health departments, requiring that if a district "provides in-person instruction for the 2020-2021 school year, the district [must consult] with the local health department regarding any applicable guidelines issued by the department or department of health and human services concerning providing in-person instruction at school for the 2020-2021 school year, including, but not limited to, guidelines for school building cleaning and school building occupancy and a requirement that the district implement the guidelines, if any, described in this subdivision." That's it. In nearly 100 pages of legislation, that is the only specificity the bills provide regarding health and safety protocols for the fall.
Moreover, it is important to note that with each county health department determining the requisite protocols, Michigan could end up with 83 different versions of what would be required for local districts to reopen. And the bills don't specify what would happen for districts in communities that cross county lines.
Continuity of Learning Plans & Pupil Accounting
If the proposal is short on specifics about what local districts are going to have to do to ensure student safety, they are long on new mandates and red tape that schools will face in order to educate students and count them in membership. Under the proposal districts would have to file a new Extended Continuity of Learning Plan in order to obtain the seat time flexibility they will likely need to operate in the fall. The bills provide that – in addition to all the requirements imposed in Executive Order 2020-65 – Extended Continuity of Learning Plans would have to provide:
- Benchmark testing for every student in the district at least three times per year (in addition to state-mandated summative testing since that is federally required and nothing in these bills waives the state-level mandate).
- That any distance learning matches the scope and sequence of traditional in-person instruction.
- That student learning would be targeted at increasing M-STEP scores.
The bills contain a wide variety of proposals, several of which have seemingly little to do with reopening school in the fall. Here is a sampling of what else the bills contain:
- A new Pupil Accounting and Auditing Manual Oversight Committee comprised of political appointees who would take over the process of annually reviewing and revising school pupil accounting rules.
- A requirement that, in order to receive their state aid money, schools must administer fall benchmark assessments in ELA and math to every student in grades K-8 within the first 30 days of school and report the results to MDE disaggregated by pupil. The benchmark assessments would have to be chosen from a list of tools approved by MDE subject to a laundry list of legislative criteria. This new mandate would be in addition to state summative testing, which is not changed by these bills.
- The elimination of all but two snow days in favor of new, so-called "e-learning days." In order to utilize e-learning days, districts would have to file a plan with MDE detailing how they intended to deliver instruction on those days. The regulations tied to these new plans are even more extensive than what is being proposed for Extended Continuity of Learning Plans.
- An expanded section 21f (online learning) that removes the cap on the number of courses students can take without district approval. Under the new language, a parent could automatically enroll their pupil in as many virtual courses as they want.
It is also worth noting that some of the provisions listed in the one-page promotional flyer do not appear in the actual legislation. For example, the flyer notes a mandate for in-person instruction for grades K-5. No such provision appears in the bills.
It is unclear whether these bills have any future beyond the upcoming election season. Given the timing of their release – a week before the formal Return to School Roadmap and just a few days before the legislature leaves for it's two-month election year summer campaign break – it is difficult to know whether these proposals will actually see consideration or are just intended as campaign fodder. Given that the broad outlines of the plan appear to have been taken almost verbatim from an op-ed released by the Devos-funded Great Lakes Education Project, the latter seems more likely to be the case.
Rest assured, MASSP will continue to engage in the process and to keep members informed as the situation progresses.
For those who are interested in more detail, links to the one-pager and the bills follow: