The Political Mess around Michigan Governor Snyder’s “Turnarounds” for Struggling Schools

There is a political mess in Michigan around the performance and the role of Governor Rick Snyder’s Education Achievement Authority (EAA).  The EAA was intended by the Governor to function like the Louisiana Recovery School District (RSD) that took over many so called “failing” schools in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and then was expanded to take over struggling schools across the state. (Its primary role has been to privatize schools in New Orleans.) As bits and pieces of news filter out of Michigan, it’s hard to piece together what is happening.  This is my attempt to connect at least some of the dots.

Michigan’s Governor Snyder created the EAA as an independent agency in 2011 to take over Michigan’s lowest performing schools, those whose test scores fall in the bottom 5 percent.  Currently the EAA operates as a partnership of the Detroit Pubic Schools and Eastern Michigan University (EMU), although the EAA is unpopular at EMU.  The latest massive rally against the arrangement by students and faculty at EMU took place only yesterday, February 20.  The EAA currently runs 15 of Detroit’s lowest performing schools.

Michigan’s general assembly has been unable to agree on legislation to expand the EAA beyond the current arrangement involving Detroit and EMU.  According to the Detroit News, a bill currently being considered by the House would establish the EAA as a freestanding school district and expand the EAA’s management to 50 schools across the state.  The bill would cap EAA schools to 27 though June of this year, 39 through June of 2015, and 50 thereafter. Under the proposed legislation, no school could be ordered into the EAA until 2015, although schools could be voluntarily placed in the system by their school district.  The EAA would be granted the authority to open charter schools anywhere in the state.

And finally on Wednesday, February 19, Michigan’s State Superintendent of Schools Mike Flanagan notified the EAA that Michigan’s Department of Education would end its contract with the Education Achievement Authority within one year (a year’s notification of termination was part of the original contract).  There has been much disagreement in the press about whether the termination is designed to give Governor Snyder more top-down options for governance of so-called failing schools or whether it is a vote of no-confidence by the Department of Education and State Board of Education.

What does all this really mean?  First, it is clear that Michigan’s governor is imposing a top-down, punitive school policy on the struggling schools in Michigan’s poorest cities.  We have seen this previously in Governor Snyder’s appointment of emergency managers for Muskegon Heights and Highland Park, emergency managers who brought in private charter management organizations to run the districts.  We saw it again with the closing of the Inkster and Buena Vista school districts and their forced merger with neighboring school districts.  In all these cases one motive was to break the teachers unions because the enabling legislation permitted abrogation of signed labor contracts.

In the case of the Education Achievement Authority, the best evidence of serious problems comes from materials gathered through the Freedom of Information Act by State Representative (and attorney) Ellen Cogen Lipton and her ongoing investigation.   Michigan’s Eclecta Blog interviewed Representative Lipton last September.  Representative Lipton catalogues questionable EAA practices and abuses she has uncovered:

  • After contracting with Michigan Futures to hire special education teachers and aides and to design the special education program, the EAA did not follow through to ensure that all students on IEPs in the 15 Detroit schools turned over to EAA were kept on IEPs and were served as their IEPs required.  Parents were not brought into IEP conferences, as required, when IEPs were changed. The number of students with IEPs dropped by several thousand as the EAA took over Detroit schools whose school populations were thought not to have changed.
  • Zero tolerance discipline programs were extremely rigid and did not consider the requirements of students’ IEPs. “You see these inordinately high numbers of disciplinary situations.  There were 5,000 events.  We’re talking about a district of roughly 10,000 students.  That’s very, very high.”
  • Serious questions arise about standardized testing.  Are the same students being pre-tested and post-tested when scores are made to appear to rise?  “They’re saying students are getting X amount of growth.  Well, what we’re hearing from psychometricians from Wayne State University who have actually reviewed the test data, they’re telling us that’s not possible because the cohort of students that took the test in February were not those that took the test in October.”  Even Scantron, the testing company, “stated that it’s their opinion that the testing conditions were inappropriate.  There were rampant computer failures.”
  • It appears that the Edyth and Eli Broad Foundation made a grant of $25 million to support the establishment of EAA and to hire John Covington from Kansas City to lead EAA. Covington is a graduate of the Broad Academy for alternative certification of superintendents.  The Kansas City Schools had lost accreditation at the end of Covington’s tenure there.
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