Michigan teachers not invited to legislative hearing on reopening schools

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The state House and Senate Education committees met Wednesday to discuss reopening plans for schools this fall amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but an important perspective was left out of the conversation — teachers. 

Conversations on safe reopening plans, and if in-person learning is a possibility at all this fall, are happening at federal, state and local levels. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, President Donald Trump and the Michigan legislative Republicans have all released their own plans. GOP plans stress the need for in-person learning, while Whitmer said school buildings shouldn’t open in geographic regions where COVID-19 caseloads are too high. 

Susan J. Demas graphic

Invited to speak at the hearing were representatives from a national school choice group, a charter school management company, the Michigan Association of School Psychologists, Michigan Association of School Social Workers, Michigan School Counselors Association, the medical director for the Flint Community Schools Wellness Program and three superintendents from the Upper Peninsula.

“The one group of people that we have not heard from today are teachers,” state Rep. Darrin Camilleri (D-Brownstown Twp.), a former teacher, said near the end of the meeting. “As we talk about reopening, I hope that we are also centering the experience of the educators who we are expecting to do the work. Because by us saying that they have to open, we also need a workforce that is going to be there, be able to be safe, work with our students, make sure that they feel uplifted, that they are growing and learning at the same time and that our educators are empowered to do the work safely.”

Rep. Matt Koleszar (D-Plymouth) said the lack of educators asked to speak Wednesday was “disheartening.”

“I was a teacher for 12 ½ years before I was a state representative and I found it was very frustrating that nobody ever asked for the opinions of the teachers who are on the front line with our students,” Koleszar said. “Once again we are seeing Lansing play out that same scenario when we should have learned from previous examples, and there are countless examples. But instead, we’re doing the same thing.”

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The first panelist to speak in front of the joint committee was Zack Eckert, the Midwest regional advocacy director for Excellence in Education, a Tallahassee, Fla.-based school choice organization founded by GOP former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. 

State Sen. Dayna Polehanki (D-Livonia) raised concerns about Eckert’s lack of expertise in Michigan schools and the bills being raised at Wednesday’s meeting. However, state Sen. Lana Theis (R-Brighton) quashed her concerns, stating that the House committee chair, State Rep. Pamela Hornberger (R-Chesterfield Twp.),  is the one “deciding who is actually going to be speaking.” 

“I just found it galling that here we are talking about what’s best for Michiganders and this return-to-learn endeavor, and we have a guy who’s zooming in from Indiana, who works for a company from Florida and who seems to be … not adequately aware of what’s contained in the house bills, which were supposed to be the topic today,” Polehanki told the Advance

The meeting was convened to discuss the GOP’s bill package and their “return-to-learn” plan for the next school year.

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House Bill 5910, introduced by Hornberger, allows for districts to determine e-learning days when in-person learning is deemed unsafe by the district’s superintendent.

House Bill 5911, introduced by state Rep. Greg Markannen (R-Hancock), expands the number of virtual classes a student is allowed to take, as long as the virtual classes are intended to remedy “an academic deficiency by testing below grade level” on the Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress (M-STEP) or the student’s parent or guardian requests enrollment in virtual courses due to health, safety and welfare concerns.

Polehanki noted during the meeting that the M-STEP assesses based on proficiency, not grade-level standards.

House Bill 5912, introduced by state Rep. Andrea Schroeder (R-Independence Twp.), excludes e-learning days from the state’s attendance requirement that states a district must have at least 75% attendance on any instructional day in order to avoid prorated funding. 

House Bill 5913, introduced by state Rep. Annette Glenn (R-Midland), redefines attendance to include all student engagement in instruction, including online learning, rather than exclusively in-seat instruction.

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The bill also requires that districts administer at least one benchmark assessment to all kindergarten through eighth grade students within the first 30 days of the school year to measure proficiency in reading and math. 

A report identifying the number and percentage of students in each district who are significantly behind grade level would need to be provided to the House and Senate appropriations subcommittees on school aid and the House and Senate Fiscal agencies by Dec. 1. 

“My fear is what the Legislature is going to do with those scores. All we can do is make laws,” Polehanki said. “Kids lost three months of instruction.  The scores are not going to be good. So what is the Legislature and this new oversight committee … going to do with these scores? That scares me.”

During the meeting, Polehanki raised concerns about the emotional effect benchmark testing will have on students early on in their return to districts, but was cut off by Hornberger. 

“I’m going to stop you for a minute and ask you if you’re aware of what’s in the governor’s plan,” Hornberger said. “She supports every student in grades pre-K through 12th grade during the first few weeks of school using a screener diagnostic or formative assessment that can be given online or conducted virtually to understand where the students are at.”

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The difference between Whitmer’s “Return to School Roadmap” and GOP lawmakers’ learning plan is that testing is “strongly recommended” under Whitmer’s plan and if the Republicans’ bill package is passed by the House and Senate, testing would be mandated under state law.

“So if you’re going to be a bomb thrower, know all the information,” Hornberger said. “You can stop now.”

Polehanki, who sits on the governor’s Return to School Advisory Council, said she is “surprised that [Hornberger] came unglued and behaved in such an unprofessional way.”

“That’s not befitting of a chairwoman of such an important committee,” Polehanki said. 

Each of the bills in the package were referred to the House Education Committee on June 24.