- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 13, 2016

LANSING, Mich. (AP) - A legislative committee approved a $16.2 billion education spending plan Wednesday with a modest boost in K-12 aid but less for universities than proposed by Gov. Rick Snyder, who wants to bring the colleges’ funding in line with levels in place when he took office.

The bill - the first to clear either chamber’s full budget panel - would increase university operations aid by 3.4 percent in the next fiscal year, less than a 4.4 percent boost sought by the Republican governor. Democrats on the Republican-led House Appropriations Committee who voted against the bill said funding for roughly a third of Michigan’s 15 universities would stay below levels from six years ago, before Snyder pushed through a 15 percent cut to help resolve a budget deficit.

The schools could not qualify for the full amount unless they keep tuition and fee hikes to no more than 4.8 percent or $500, whichever is more.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Al Pscholka, R-Stevensville, said the 19-10 mostly party-line vote was the “start of the process” and expressed hope that some of the criticism could be addressed. He is pushing to fix a 2012 law that inadvertently qualified auto insurers for an estimated $80 million annual tax break, which he called one of the “largest pieces of corporate welfare” he has seen as a lawmaker and money that could be spent on higher education and other priorities.

The legislation that is headed to the House floor would boost the school aid budget by more than $283 million, or 2 percent. The panel concurred with Snyder’s proposed funding increase for districts ranging between $60 and $120 per student.

It also agreed to spend about $19 million over this year and next providing developmental assessments to young children in Flint - which is grappling with lead-contaminated water - hiring more school nurses and social workers in the city, and offering free preschool for 4-year-olds there.

In a break with Snyder, the committee balked at spending $6 million over two years to pay CEOs that the administration plans to appoint to take over academics in some chronically failing schools. But majority Republicans inserted a $100 provision intended to keep the issue as a discussion point in coming months.

Rep. Sarah Roberts, D-St. Clair Shores, likened the CEOs to “failed” state emergency managers and questioned how the reform office will determine which schools are in the bottom 5 percent given the bill also would eliminate and replace the state’s new standardized test, known as the M-STEP.

“I don’t think the state has a true plan in place in how to implement and administer this program,” she said.

Rep. Sam Singh, D-East Lansing, questioned an assumption that replacing the M-STEP would save millions of dollars and criticized a separate move to end the Michigan Merit Examination, an assessment of 11th-graders that includes the SAT. He called it “too dramatic of a step” since students planning to attend college need to take an entrance exam anyway.

But Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Saginaw Township, said those applying to college could use their own money to pay for the SAT or ACT or receive aid from school foundations or charities. He said the move to defund current tests is designed to start a “broader conversation” about high-stakes assessments in general, and the Legislature will not finalize the 2016-17 budget for another six to eight weeks.

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Follow David Eggert on Twitter at https://twitter.com/DavidEggert00 . His work can be found at https://bigstory.ap.org/author/david-eggert

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