By Timothy Mclaughlin

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Underperforming schools in the cash-strapped city of Detroit can be closed this school year, Michigan's Attorney General said in a legal opinion issued Wednesday to clarify an existing state law.

The position is the latest development in a battle between the state's Republican and Democratic lawmakers over how best to address Detroit's struggling school system.

Attorney General Bill Schuette, a Republican, said schools operated by the Detroit Public School Community District that are among the lowest achieving 5 percent of all public schools during the three preceding school years can be shuttered by the state's School Reform Officer (SRO).

Republican Governor Rick Snyder, who in June approved a dramatic restructuring of Detroit's school system, previously accepted the opinion of an outside law firm that the SRO could not close schools until 2019, according to the Detroit Free Press.

"The law is clear: Michigan parents and their children do not have to be stuck indefinitely in a failing school," Schuette said in a statement on Wednesday.

"Detroit students and parents deserve accountability and high performing schools. If a child can't spell opportunity, they won't have opportunity."

Some Democrats argue that the newly restructured school district needs additional time to re-evaluate the performance of schools and integrate best learning practices.

Schuette's opinion said the SRO could issue a mandatory notice of closure to a school, which would then determine the best time to close before the end of the current school term.

If a school is closed, students will be re-assigned to another school.

The Detroit public school system, which has nearly 46,000 students, has been under state control since 2009 because of a financial emergency.

Of the 124 worst-performing schools in the state, 47 are Detroit public schools, according to a list released by the SRO earlier this month.

The recent restructuring of the school system splits it into two distinct parts in an effort to improve the academically and financially struggling system.

Ari Adler, a spokesman for Snyder's office, said on Wednesday that the governor's office was reviewing Schuette's legal opinion.

Republican House Speaker Kevin Cotter, who asked for a clarification of the law from Schuette welcomed the decision on Wednesday.

"Detroit students need a final decision, and this opinion provides one," Cotter said in a statement.

State Representative Sherry Gay-Dagnogo, a Democrat representing northwest Detroit, slammed Schuette's opinion, describing the attorney general as "totally out of touch with the needs of our community."

(Editing by Andrew Hay)