Nick Krieger (@nckrieger):
Last Thursday, the members of the Michigan House Education Committee voted 13-3-1 to favorably report HB 4822 (as amended by substitute H-5) to the full House of Representatives for consideration. HB 4822 has been placed on the second reading calendar, and it is expected that the full House will act on the bill as early as this week. Five of the six Democrats on the education committee—Harvey Santana (D-Detroit), Adam Zemke (D-Ann Arbor), Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit), Andy Schor (D-Lansing), and Winnie Brinks (D-Grand Rapids)—voted to favorably report the bill and to recommend its adoption. The sixth Democrat on the committee, Christine Greig (D-Farmington Hills), abstained. Curiously, the only three members of the education committee who voted not to report the bill were Ed McBroom (R-Vulcan), Pat Somerville (R-New Boston), and Tom Hooker (R-Byron Center).
HB 4822 is unnecessary, unconstitutional, and dangerous. It is yet another bill in the long line of legislation intended to undermine Michigan’s teachers and create the false appearance that our public schools are unable to adequately teach Michigan’s children to read. Creating this false appearance is a critical first step in the process of demonization, dismantling, and privatization.
In theory, HB 4822 is designed to facilitate the early identification of children with reading delays and to require a basic level of reading proficiency for all third-grade pupils in Michigan. These sound like noble objectives, at least until you read the bill. What’s so bad about HB 4822? Where should I begin?
1. HB 4822 would require public and charter schools to retain third graders who do not score adequately on the state standardized third-grade reading test. Yes, HB 4822 would mandate that local school officials force pupils who are not proficient in reading to repeat the third grade. Children obviously learn to read at different rates. This cannot be gainsaid. Moreover, state standardized tests are poor gauges for reading proficiency, especially for elementary-school pupils at such young ages. Of note, HB 4822 would not require pupils who are deficient in mathematics, social studies, or any other subject to repeat the third grade. Only reading. Why? Shouldn’t we be treating all core subjects as equally important? Do we really need a state statute requiring local school administrators to retain third-grade pupils who struggle with reading but are gifted in mathematics, science, and/or verbal communication? It makes very little sense to me.
2. Historically, the decision to retain or promote an elementary-school pupil has been a matter within the discretion of local teachers and principals. For example, my mother taught third grade in a Michigan public school for many, many years. Throughout that time, it was up to her—after consultation with the building principal or a pupil’s parents in some cases—to decide whether that pupil should repeat the third grade or advance to the fourth grade. No statute guided her hand in this determination. No bureaucratic structure existed to force her decision. She had taught the pupil for the entire school year and she was in the best position to know the pupil’s strengths and weaknesses. The decision was hers. Why do the backers of HB 4822 (including the Democrats listed above) want to statutorily divest classroom teachers—the very professionals who know their pupils best—of their historical discretion to recommend promotion or retention? So much for local control of education.
3. HB 4822 would require a new, complex bureaucracy in each and every Michigan school district. Among other things, the bill would require local school administrators to (1) develop methods for the early identification of reading-delayed pupils; (2) notify the parents of all reading-delayed pupils of their children’s deficiencies; (3) implement “reading intervention programs,” including small groups, individualized reading assistance programs, and recommended summer reading camps; (4) hire additional reading specialists as necessary; (5) implement “ongoing progress monitoring assessments”; (6) provide “read at home” training workshops for parents and guardians; (7) assign reading-delayed third graders to the district’s most highly effective reading teacher as determined by the teacher evaluation process; (8) implement a system for granting good-cause exemptions to certain students; and (9) provide written documentation and reports pertaining to many of these new responsibilities. Most of this, of course, would cost money. But never fear! The Legislature has already appropriated funds for some of these purposes in § 35a(6) of the State School Aid Act, MCL 338.1635a(6). The catch? Individual school districts and charter schools will be required to submit complex and detailed reports in order to receive any of this money, and will essentially be forced to compete with each other to share in the limited pool of funds.
4. HB 4822 would require Intermediate School Districts (“ISDs”) to deploy “early literacy coaches,” individuals appointed and funded under § 35a(6) of the State School Aid Act, who would provide professional development for existing reading teachers and train them how to teach pupils to read. If you think this sounds a bit odd, you aren’t the only one. One has to wonder why it is necessary for the ISDs to send in literacy coaches at considerable expense to train existing, state-certified reading teachers how to teach reading. This strikes me as a completely unnecessary duplication of efforts. It also strikes me as yet another surreptitious attack on teachers, designed to make it seem that Michigan’s existing teachers simply aren’t capable of performing their jobs. The truth is that our existing reading teachers—through no fault of their own—are simply overworked and do not have time to conduct one-on-one tutorials with reading-delayed pupils. Yet the sponsors of HB 4822 believe that it is better to spend $75,000 per literacy coach (the Legislature has only appropriated half this amount, and the individual ISDs will have to supply the remaining $37,500 per literacy coach in accordance with MCL 388.1635a) than to provide money for the hiring of new classroom teachers or paraprofessionals. You really have to wonder.
5. As I have written on previous occasions, the Michigan Legislature lacks the constitutional power to legislate in the areas of curriculum and general K-12 school policy. Article VIII of the Michigan Constitution of 1963 vests in the State Board of Education and the Superintendent of Public Instruction the plenary and exclusive authority to oversee and supervise all public schools, including matters of teaching and curriculum. In their Address to the People, the delegates to the Michigan Constitutional Convention of 1961-1962 explained that although the state's new fundamental charter would empower the Legislature to set up and finance Michigan’s public schools, the State Board of Education would serve as the exclusive “policy-making body” for Michigan’s schools. The Michigan Supreme Court has reaffirmed this concept, ruling in 1969 that the State Board of Education has the exclusive power to supervise Michigan’s public schools and set the curriculum. The framers of Michigan’s Constitution, and more importantly the people who ratified it, intended for the State Board of Education to apply its unique educational expertise to the management and supervision of Michigan’s schools. The Michigan Constitution of 1963 simply does not permit the Legislature to regulate teaching and curriculum in Michigan schools.
6. HB 4822 likely violates the Headlee Amendment of Michigan’s Constitution as well because it implements costly new mandates without providing sure and sufficient funding for local school districts. As explained earlier, while it is true that the Legislature has set aside some money for K-3 reading programs in § 35a of the State School Aid Act, these funds have not been disbursed to local school districts as required by Article 9, § 29 of the Michigan Constitution of 1963. Indeed, the State School Aid Act provides that school districts and charter schools will have to submit detailed, lengthy reports to the state before becoming eligible to receive any of this funding. Worse, the funding would not be available to local districts until after their implementation of the mandates of HB 4822. And, of course, there is no way of knowing whether the funds appropriated in the State School Aid Act will even be sufficient to cover the total costs of HB 4822, which will remain unknown until they are actually incurred.
7. Finally, I cannot omit mention that Florida has required third-grade retention for reading-delayed pupils for more than ten years. In 2002, the Florida Legislature enacted a statute requiring retention for reading-delayed third graders—a statute upon which HB 4822 is largely based. But a recent Harvard University study has revealed no evidence “that test-based retention in early grades is beneficial for students in the long run, even when it is accompanied by the requirement that students receive additional services.” That same study has shown that any positive effects of mandatory third-grade retention in Florida “fade out over time and become statistically insignificant within five years.” Just recently, the Florida Legislature decided to temporarily stay the enforcement of its mandatory-retention law so that it can more carefully study the issue.
HB 4822, if passed, would burden Michigan’s public schools and weigh them down with new and complex administrative responsibilities. It would eliminate a great deal of local control over student retention and promotion, and would put in place a rigorous one-size-fits-all statewide framework with very little flexibility. It would require ISDs to send in literacy coaches to serve as a watch upon existing reading teachers and potentially confuse pupils with contradictory instructional methods. It would divert needed monies to fund literacy coaches while leaving cash-strapped districts without the means to decrease class sizes or implement one-on-one reading programs. It would direct local school administrators to hold back third-grade pupils who underperform on state standardized reading assessments, notwithstanding that those pupils might be brilliantly gifted in other areas or simply bad at taking tests. It would send the false message that Michigan’s existing reading teachers are incompetent and/or not up to the task at hand. It would put in place unrealistic, across-the-board expectations for all third graders, disregarding the fact that children learn to read in different ways and at different rates. It would deal a blow to the confidence of many young children, causing them to dread school even more than they already do. Lastly, it would continue the recent trend of unconstitutional legislative usurpation of the role of the State Board of Education.
Decisions like this should be made by education experts—not by elected legislators with no pedagogical expertise. Please call your State Representative. Tell him or her that HB 4822 is unnecessary, unconstitutional, and just plain wrong for Michigan. And while you’re at it, call State Representatives Santana, Zemke, Chang, Schor, and Brinks. Tell them that if they’re not willing listen to the experts, stand up for teachers, and promote sound education policy for Michigan, we really don’t need them taking up space in Lansing or the Democratic Party.