Nick Krieger (@nckrieger):
Michigan House Bill 4822, the third-grade retention bill, has finally emerged from conference committee. The bill shares many similarities with the controversial Florida third-grade retention law, as well as ALEC model legislation.
Last October, the Michigan House of Representatives passed HB 4822 by a vote of 57-48. The bill was then sent to the Michigan Senate, which made amendments and passed a different version of the bill by a vote of 31-6 in March. The bill was transferred back to the Michigan House, which failed to concur in the Senate substitute. Accordingly, it was sent to conference committee where it has remained since April.
Tuesday evening, the House and Senate conferees reached a compromise by a vote of 5-1 (you can read the conference report here). Lawmakers could vote on the conference committee’s recommendations as early as Wednesday.
Most notably, the conference report eliminates language that would have permitted the granting of a good-cause exemption to a third-grade pupil who is not proficient in reading upon the recommendation of his or her principal and reading teacher (other types of good-cause exemptions remain in the bill). A few other minor changes were made as well.
Overall, the bill remains similar in substance to the original legislation. It would still require a public school to retain a pupil in the third grade if he or she does not demonstrate reading proficiency. A pupil would be able to demonstrate third-grade reading proficiency through his or her performance on (1) the state standardized reading test, (2) an alternative assessment approved by the Superintendent of Public Instruction, or (3) a student portfolio. A pupil who does not demonstrate proficiency in one of these ways would be subject to retention unless he or she could (1) demonstrate proficiency in other subjects, including science and social studies, or (2) obtain a good-cause exemption from the district superintendent or charter school administrator. A district superintendent’s or charter administrator’s decision whether to grant a good-cause exemption would be final and not appealable.
In theory, HB 4822 is designed to facilitate the early identification of children with reading delays and require a basic level of reading proficiency for all third-grade pupils in Michigan. These sound like noble objectives.
But I still have several concerns about the bill — most notably, I believe it is unconstitutional.
1. The bill would expand the existing system of “early literacy coaches,” individuals employed by Intermediate School Districts (“ISDs”) to provide professional development for reading teachers in school districts within the ISD area. Each literacy coach would be paid $75,000 to train existing, state-certified teachers how to teach reading. This strikes me as an unnecessary duplication of efforts. It also seems that, rather than being used to pay ISD consultants, this money could be better spent to reduce class sizes and hire new reading teachers.
2. In addition, HB 4822 strikes me as yet another attack on educators, designed to make it look like our existing reading teachers aren’t capable of performing their jobs. In truth, our existing reading teachers — through no fault of their own — often do not have time to conduct one-on-one tutorials with reading-delayed pupils. But by making it appear that our public school teachers are “failing,” the GOP-controlled Legislature takes one more step toward accomplishing its privatization/charterization goal.
3. Historically, the decision to retain or promote an elementary-school pupil has been a matter within the discretion of teachers and local school officials. Why do the backers of HB 4822 want to statutorily divest classroom teachers and principals — the very professionals who know their pupils best — of the discretion to recommend promotion or retention? Whatever happened to local control of education?
4. And what happened to the Republican love affair with rolling back onerous regulations? HB 4822 would create a complex new bureaucracy in every Michigan school district. Among other things, the bill would require local administrators to (1) develop methods for the early identification of reading-delayed pupils; (2) notify the parents of reading-delayed pupils concerning their children’s deficiencies; (3) implement intervention programs, including small groups and individualized reading programs; (4) hire reading specialists and tutors 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. All of this, of course, would take time and cost money. I guess expensive, highly burdensome regulations are OK when they affect public schools — just not when they affect business.
5. As I have frequently explained, the Michigan Legislature lacks the constitutional authority to legislate in the areas of curriculum and instruction. The Michigan Constitution of 1963 confers upon the State Board of Education and the Superintendent of Public Instruction the plenary and exclusive authority to supervise and manage all public education, including matters of teaching and learning. The delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1961-1962 explained that although the new constitution would empower the Legislature to set up and finance Michigan’s school districts, the State Board of Education would serve as the exclusive “policy-making body” for Michigan’s schools. The state constitution simply does not permit the Legislature to regulate the teaching of reading in this way.
6. HB 4822 is probably unconstitutional for another reason, too. The bill implements costly new mandates without providing sufficient funding to pay for its top-down directives. While the Legislature has already set aside some money for ISDs to hire early literacy coaches in § 35a of the State School Aid Act, HB 4822 would dramatically increase the duties and responsibilities of literacy coaches without providing any additional dollars. (By the way, the State School Aid Act only funds half the salary of each early literacy coach — every individual ISD is required to come up with the other $37,500). The Headlee Amendment of the Michigan Constitution generally prohibits the imposition of such unfunded mandates.
HB 4822, if passed, would burden Michigan’s public schools with new and complex responsibilities. It would increase costs for local school districts. It would send the false message that Michigan’s reading teachers are “failing.” It would largely reject the notion that children learn to read in different ways and at different rates. And it would probably violate the state constitution.
Education experts, not politicians, should be making decisions about elementary-school reading proficiency. That’s exactly why the drafters of our state constitution set up an independent education department, designed to be free from political pressures and influence. Too bad no one bothers to seriously challenge the Legislature when it oversteps its constitutional bounds, as it is almost certain to do with HB 4822.