Dems criticize GOP school reopening plan for ‘DeVos agenda’ of privatizing services

Betsy DeVos | Gage Skidmore via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

House Education Committee members were split along party lines Tuesday while discussing potential changes to the GOP bill package for reopening schools in the fall during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Through a number of amendments, Democratic committee members argued that the four-bill GOP plan outsources virtual instruction to out-of-state private institutions, penalizes schools for resorting to online instruction if schools aren’t safe to reopen and does not offer fair access to broadband. Republicans did not comment on the Democratic measures before voting them down.

Last week, the state House and Senate Education committees met to discuss the bill package, but Democratic members voiced concerns over the lack of teacher representation during the testimonies. The joint committee instead invited school choice advocates, superintendents and school psychologists.

Teachers were again not included in the hearing Tuesday.

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House Bill 5910, introduced by State Rep. Pamela Hornberger (R-Chesterfield Twp.), allows for districts to determine e-learning days when in-person learning is deemed unsafe by the district’s superintendent.

It also allows for educational services and school employees to be contracted through private organizations, which Rep. Darrin Camilleri (D-Brownstown Twp.) argued should be amended out of the bill.

“Privatizing services has long been a goal of the [U.S. Education Secretary] Betsy DeVos agenda. For us, I believe that we should be ensuring that we are protecting public school employees and protecting our teachers,” Camilleri said. “And I would like to remove the contracting language because I don’t believe that we should be allowing for the privatization of services, especially during a pandemic.”

State Rep. Bill Sowerby (D-Clinton Twp.) also offered an amendment to House Bill 5910 that would require the state to provide broadband access statewide. 

“This bill creates a cheap way for the state to absolve itself from stepping up and making statewide broadband access a priority,” Sowerby said. “My amendment would remove the easy out language for the state which allows schools to offer non-electronic materials if individuals are not provided with access to the necessary technology that all students need to be successful.”

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Neither amendment made it through the committee after a majority “no” vote from the Republican members. 

House Bill 5911, introduced by state Rep. Greg Markannen (R-Hancock), also was discussed. 

The bill 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.

State Rep. Lori Stone (D-Warren) offered an amendment to “remove the ability and fully replace a district’s ability under current law to deny a pupil who has failed a previous virtual course in the past two year from taking another one.”

Rep. Matt Koleszar (D-Plymouth) also proposed an amendment to House Bill 5911 to limit the institutions that are allowed to offer virtual courses and expand the language to include public state universities. 

“We obviously want to make sure we are providing help to schools in this crisis. Unfortunately, rather than doing that, we’re taking up DeVos-style bills that vastly expand who can be a provider of an online course to literally any person.”

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These amendments also did not get the support of the Republican majority. 

State Rep. Tyrone Carter (D-Detroit) offered an amendment to House Bill 5912, introduced by state Rep. Andrea Schroeder (R-Independence Twp.).

The bill 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. 

“This bill requires schools to offer K-5 in-person education as part of the requirements to ultimately receive funding. The governor’s plan clearly indicates that if we roll back to phase three in the Michigan Safe Start Plan, schools cannot offer any in-person education. This is an unnecessary catch 22 that would set schools up for failure,” Carter said. 

The Michigan GOP’s plan and President Donald Trump’s plan for reopening schools stress the need for in-person learning, while Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has said school buildings shouldn’t open in regions of the state where COVID-19 cases continue to rise. 

Michigan has more than 74,000 cases and 6,100 deaths.

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Carter’s amendment would simplify the requirements to receive full funding by mandating that schools comply with the governor’s plan, which allows for virtual learning.

Again, the amendment was shot down with a vote along party lines. 

The fourth bill in the package, 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.

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. 

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“This seems to be an invasion of privacy,” state Rep. Brenda Carter (D-Pontiac) said. “It then requires the purpose to tell the legislature what we all know, that COVID-19 has a detrimental effect on students.”

She offered an amendment that would remove the mandate to provide standardized benchmark assessments and removes the requirement that districts provide pupil-level test results to the Michigan Department of Education. 

This amendment did get the support of one Republican committee member, Rep. Brad Paquette (R-Niles). Rep. John Reilly (R-Oakland Twp.) passed on voting. The amendment still was not adopted.

The bill package now moves to the House Ways and Means Committee, the next stop before it would go to a full vote of the House.