Laurie Pohutsky
Michigan House Democrats prepare a series of responses to the coronavirus pandemic. Photo courtesy Rep. Pohutsky's office.

State Rep. Laurie Pohutsky struggled with her vote on a deal she said was an improvement on the Republican school plan, but still left educators out.

LANSING, MI — With just days to go before schools are set to reopen, Gov. Whitmer and Republicans in the Legislature have reached a bipartisan agreement on how to navigate the complex issue of reopening a school during a pandemic. 

“[W]e reached a bipartisan deal that will give students, parents, educators, and support staff much needed support, flexibility, and certainty as we approach the new school year,” Whitmer and Legislative leaders said in a joint statement. “They deserve peace of mind about what the next few months will hold in store, and this legislation will provide it.”

The plan includes $580 million to help schools implement e-learning solutions, while dropping Republicans’ earlier push for privatization of distance learning services. Teachers will also be provided hazard pay. 

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Schools who choose not to resume in-person instruction won’t be penalized, but the plan encourages kindergarten through fifth grade students to receive in-person instruction. Schools that don’t meet certain teacher-student interaction standards will, however, be penalized. 

The plan does not explicitly require face masks to be worn for in-person instruction instead leaving the decision to implement such a requirement to individual school districts. 

“We strongly encourage masks for everyone. I hope that parents and students and teachers and administrators alike are hearing this,” Whitmer told reporters. “We know that mask wearing is a cultural change that we have to make, and it’s not easy to make it quickly. But the cost of this pandemic is necessitating that we do.”

But certain objections against the initial Republican plan remain true of the compromise deal, explained state Rep. Laurie Pohutsky (D-Livonia). Chief among her concerns was the way educators were still not consulted as part of developing the compromise plan. 

“This was a tough one, it was a tough vote to take,” Pohutsky told The ‘Gander. “As someone who has been talking for several years now about including educators in education policy, in an emergency situation like this it’s even more important.” 

Pohutsky has, throughout her time in Lansing, given voice to educators with causes like securing funding for schools in need, modernizing the curriculum, and co-sponsored a bill to simplify and standardize access to kindergarten across the state. 

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Pohutsky eventually voted against the compromise deal Monday, Aug. 17, though it successfully passed both chambers of Michigan’s legislature. The lack of consultation with career educators and a nebulous explanation of the state’s intended use for assessment data both caused her significant concern. 

“I have not spoken to a single school district that is not planning to do some type of baseline assessment anyway,” she explained. “What these bills did with that baseline assessment did, though … [is] requiring that aggregate data go to the state. The problem with that is this bill does not require the baseline assessment to be standardized across the state.”

That means any attempt to compare Detroit Public Schools to Kalamazoo Public Schools will face serious challenges from different tests assessed by different criteria. Pohutsky also explained that educators worry that it will be hard to ensure parents aren’t helping students complete the assessments. 

She said that’s a problem because she never got a solid answer from Legislative Republicans for what the data about those assessments was going to be used for. 

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Pohutsky said she knows no compromise is perfect, and said this deal dramatically improved the overall legislation. Things like reducing the weight of this year’s student count in determining school funding, dropping the push to privatize e-learning and greater flexibility for individual school districts to formulate their own plans. But, she added, the educators in her district had concerns that weren’t able to be addressed because their voices were shut out of the process. 

“It was a compromise, there was never going to be a perfect compromise,” Pohutsky said. “I ended up being a no out of solidarity [with educators] … There were some definite improvements because in the bill that I voted on on Monday because of the changes because of the compromise, but overall the educators in my community were still very clearly opposed to it.”

While the bill that passed the Legislature on Monday was a significant improvement on the Republican proposal from June, it still fell short of what Pohutsky said she wanted to see, and was built on a plan that didn’t include educators’ perspectives.