Republican Detroit Plan Invests Too Little, Fails to Regulate Out-of-Control Charter Sector

To consider the Detroit Schools “rescue” plan passed by both houses of Michigan’s legislature last week and sent to Governor Rick Snyder for his signature, one can benefit from a review of some background:

  • Michigan is among the 22 states in which the governor and both houses of the legislature are dominated by Republican majorities.
  • According to Gary Miron in a 2013 report for the National Education Policy Center, Michigan is unique among the states in the number of charter schools managed by for-profit Education Management Organizations: “Michigan stands out as an anomaly with 79% of its charter schools operated by for-profit EMOs and another 10 of its charter schools operated by nonprofit EMOs.”
  • Even Robin Lake, of the pro-charter Center on Reinventing Public Education, expressed dismay after a trip to Detroit back in 2014: “Whose job is it to fix the problems facing parents in Detroit?  Our interviews with leaders in the city suggest that no one knows the answer.  It is not the state, which defers oversight to local education agencies and charter authorizers.  It is not DPS (Detroit Public Schools), which views charters as a threat to its survival.  It is not charter school authorizers, who are only responsible for ensuring that the schools they sponsor comply with the state’s charter-school law.  It is not the mayor, who thus far sees education as beyond his purview.  And it is not the schools themselves, which only want to fill their seats and serve the children they enroll.  No one in Detroit is responsible for ensuring that all neighborhoods and students have high-quality options or that parents have the information and resources they need to choose a school.  ‘It’s a free-for-all,’ one observer said. ‘We have all these crummy schools around, and nobody can figure out how to get quality back under control….’”

It seemed there was agreement in Michigan’s legislature about the need for some regulation of an out-of-control charter school sector, and the state senate had included in its plan a Detroit Education Commission whose purpose was to oversee the authorization and placement of charter schools in Detroit to ensure, for example, that schools remain available for children in all neighborhoods.  The Washington Post‘s Emma Brown explains why a Detroit Education Commission had been included in the Senate’s plan:  “Currently, charter schools can open with the approval of any one of a number of independent authorizers, such as universities, and there is little coordinated planning about which schools should be allowed to open and where they will be located.  Many Detroiters and state Democrats believe that any school rescue package needed to bring order to that freewheeling process by more firmly controlling where and when new schools could open… (T)o Democrats’ distress, the package passed Thursday (by the Michigan House) omitted the Detroit Education Commission, instead creating an advisory council to issue annual reports on the condition and siting of school facilities.”

In a scathing critique of Michigan’s current politics, Jen Eyer of Vanguard Public Affairs describes what happened last week as the Michigan Legislature finally passed a Detroit plan that caved in to House Speaker Kevin Cotter his colleagues: “The Senate, to its great credit, worked for 15 months to craft and pass a bipartisan plan that had the support of (Mayor) Duggan and other elected officials in Detroit, as well as Gov. Rick Snyder.  House leaders, to their great shame, subsequently shut out their Detroit and Democratic colleagues and passed a package that none of the above stakeholder supported.  Critically missing from the House package was the creation of a Detroit Education Commission that would regulate the opening and closing of public and charter schools in the city.”

Brian Dickerson, columnist for the Detroit Free Press, reports that the current Detroit Schools emergency manager, Steven Rhodes, is also very concerned that the $617 million rescue plan continues to be underfunded by $50 million that will be necessary to undertake repairs to school buildings whose routine maintenance has been ignored in the long fiscal crisis.  Dickerson describes Rhodes’ presentation last week to the Free Press Editorial Board: “Rhodes is a… realist…. So instead of characterizing the DPS legislation as ‘a new beginning’ or ‘a good start,’ he methodically outlined what the bills do (acknowledged the state’s responsibility for the school district’s multi-billion-dollar debt, accumulated mostly on the watch of Rhodes’ Lansing-appointed predecessors) and what they don’t do (provide sufficient working capital to make DPS classrooms habitable and keep the school district solvent after the term-limited governor and the incumbent state Legislature are gone). The survival of DPS is in jeopardy, Rhodes conceded, unless Snyder makes good on his pledge to find at least another $50 million to supplement the $617 million GOP lawmakers grudgingly appropriated in a straight party-line vote Thursday morning.” Dickerson’s describes what he believes is, “the sort of local control Republicans envision for Detroit—a marketplace in which parents can shop anywhere they want, but private entrepreneurs decide where to locate the stores, when they’re open for business, and whether the supplement they’re distributing meets the specs mandated by the state Constitution… And leaders like Rhodes and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan recognize the double-standard Republican legislators seek to codify in Detroit as a dagger aimed not just at DPS, but at the city itself.”

There are some other poison pills in the plan the legislature has sent to the governor:

  • Unlike any other school district in the state, Detroit will be permitted to hire uncertified school teachers.
  • The Washington Post‘s Emma Brown reports that the state will assign a letter grade every year for each school based on its students’ standardized test scores.  “Any school that gets an ‘F’ three years in a row must be closed, according to the bills, unless the closure would cause ‘unreasonable hardship’ for students.”
  • While a proposal to threaten collective bargaining itself did not make it into the final legislative package, salaries for newly-hired teachers will be set based on their job performance including their students’ standardized test scores.

What especially enraged the people of Detroit and Democrats across the state as the compromise was debated in the legislature was the legislative leadership’s refusal to allow any of Detroit’s elected legislators to speak to the rescue package.  Michigan’s Eclectablog editorialized: “SILENCED… Democracy in America is founded on representation of citizens by their elected officials. When elected officials are denied their right to speak on behalf of their constituents, those constituents are deprived of their rights and democracy is denied to them. That’s exactly what happened again last night in our state legislature thanks to House Republicans’ heavy-handed move… Meanwhile, after backroom deals were cut between Senate and House Republicans along with Gov. Snyder, the Senate passed the House version of the DPS legislation.”

State Overseers Deny Children’s Basic Needs in Poor Black Communities and Schools

Last week Julie Bosman of the NY Times reported on the conclusions of a report by a commission appointed by Governor Rick Snyder himself about what went wrong to allow the lead poisoning of Flint, Michigan’s drinking water.  Bosman quotes Snyder’s commission: “The facts of the Flint water crisis lead us to the inescapable conclusion that this is a case of environmental injustice.” Bosman continues: “In making that declaration, the five-member panel put a spotlight on a long-running civil rights issue: whether minorities and the poor are treated differently when it comes to environmental matters, relegating them to some of the most dangerous places in the country: flood prone areas of New Orleans that were devastated after Hurricane Katrina; highly polluted parts of Detroit and the Bronx; and ‘Cancer Alley’ in Louisiana, where residents who live near factories suffer disproportionately from disease. It also validated complaints long argued by many Flint residents but largely dismissed by Mr. Snyder and others: that race and poverty contributed to the often scornful reactions to their complaints. ‘Flint residents, who are majority… African American and among the most impoverished of any metropolitan area in the United States, did not enjoy the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards as that provided to other communities,’ the report concluded.”

Like environmental injustice, the denial of educational opportunity in America these days tends to follow the lines of race and class. Children segregated by race and poverty are likely to attend schools that lack necessities along with the amenities that middle class children take for granted. And nowhere is educational inequality more evident than the cities of Governor Snyder’s Michigan. Bosman quotes Governor Snyder’s commission warning, “that emergency managers, who are usually appointed to deal with governments that are in dire financial crisis, as was the case in Flint, were not equipped to handle health and environmental issues, which demand a special expertise… The issue has long been a sore point in Michigan’s minority communities, who point to Flint and Detroit’s public schools as evidence that the state’s imposition of emergency managers leads to bottom-line decisions, rather than overall governance. (Flint’s emergency manager, Darnell Earley, went on to oversee the Detroit schools until this month.)”

While a deal struck in the Michigan legislature last week will save the Detroit Public Schools from the fiscal collapse due to occur in the first week of April, the legislative “solution” is once again designed to favor the barest fiscal stability. Here is reporter David Eggert’s description of the new plan for the Associated Press: “Michigan lawmakers voted Thursday to extend $48.7 million in emergency aid to keep Detroit’s ailing school district open for the rest of the academic year and avoid the prospect of payless paydays for staff… Thursday was the deadline for lawmakers to act before their spring break. The district’s state-appointed manager has said without the aid, it would be unable to pay employees for work they do after April 8, four days before legislators will return to Lansing.  The $48.7 million is a stopgap measure while the GOP governor presses legislators to enact a $720 million restructuring plan to split the district and pay off $515 million in operating debt over a decade. The 46,000-student district has been under state financial management for seven years and is burdened with declining enrollment and low morale that has led to teacher ‘sick-outs’ in recent months.” Nobody has even begun to speculate on how the school district’s long term deficit of $3.5 billion will be addressed.

The new plan is complicated, designed for bare bones fiscal stability, although it at least includes the possibility of regulating an out-of-control charter sector that is swallowing tax dollars. The Detroit Free Press explains: “The legislation would split DPS into a new district that would educate students and be funded by state appropriations, and an old district that would exist only to collect local property taxes to pay off existing debt. Stranding the debt in the old district allows DPS to avoid bankruptcy.” “The legislation, which has the backing of Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and the governor, would create the Detroit Education Commission, a body that would regulate the openings and closings of traditional public schools and charter schools across the city. The mayor would appoint the commission’s seven members: Three people would have ties to charter schools and three to public schools, with one person from each group a parent. The final member would be an expert in public school accountability systems.”  The new law would fund the operation of the Detroit schools with $72 million annually from the state’s tobacco settlement.  Additionally the school district would be permitted to borrow $300 million from the state including $200 million in start-up funding.  under state takeover

Here is how a new report from researcher Nate Breznau of the Mannheim Centre for European Social Research describes the impact of Michigan’s state-appointed emergency managers: “The Flint water crisis is only one of many disastrous outcomes of Michigan emergency management. Others include sale of public parks, libraries, and firefighting equipment. More severe damage occurs through the EM’s power to sell public pensions, nullify collective bargaining contracts, fire public employees at will, and privatize or close schools. Democracy itself has been dispensed with since the EM is not elected and cannot be removed through public will. Despite being guaranteed by the Michigan and U.S. Constitutions, citizens living under an EM no longer rule themselves.  Who are these people egregiously stripped of democratic rights? It turns out that they are disproportionately black. A recent study published by me and my co-author from Southern Methodist University, L. Owen Kirkpatrick (both of us lived in Michigan during our research and writing of the study), shows that 10% of all Michiganders have been under emergency management at some point since 2007. Of these, 73% were black while only 21% were white despite Michigan itself being less than 15% black.”

An education crisis is widespread across our nation’s old rust belt cities. With the exodus of manufacturing that comprised the bulk of their property tax bases and with declining populations, cities like Detroit, Flint, Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Youngstown have become increasingly dependent on state legislatures dominated by representatives from suburbs, small towns, and rural areas—legislatures committed to the tax-cutting dogma of governors like Rick Snyder, Scott Walker, and John Kasich. Although privatization through vouchers and rapid expansion of unregulated charter schools was promised as a way to save money, school choice has instead created inefficiency as private operators have sucked students and their per-pupil funding from traditional districts. And too often privatized alternatives have served only the most promising students and failed to serve the students whose needs are greatest.  Privatization plans that were sold to save money and expand opportunity have instead further destabilized already struggling school districts. Racially and economically segregated city school districts have become islands of educational desolation surrounded by wealthier suburban districts, small towns and rural areas whose residents are insulated enough from urban America to believe political hucksters who tell them everything will be alright if we just demand that teachers produce higher test scores.

Today’s school reform dogma, epitomized by Detroit—bankrupt under state management and with a huge unregulated charter sector— Milwaukee— under state takeover  and with an expensive private school voucher program—and Youngstown—to be taken over and charterized by the state of Ohio—is a complex narrative of denial that contradicts the ideals our society has long proclaimed. Here is how the late Senator Paul Wellstone, in an address at Teachers College, Columbia University in March of 2000, described what he believed is growing injustice in our nation’s public schools: “That all citizens will be given an equal start through a sound education is one of the most basic, promised rights of our democracy.  Our chronic refusal as a nation to guarantee that right for all children…. is rooted in a kind of moral blindness, or at least a failure of moral imagination….  It is a failure which threatens our future as a nation of citizens called to a common purpose… tied to one another by a common bond.”

Legislature Debates Detroit Schools’ Bailout, Gov. Snyder’s Future Fades

Finally, Michigan’s governor Rick Snyder has agreed to testify before the U.S. House Oversight Committee tomorrow about his role and the role of his appointed Emergency Fiscal Manager Darnell Earley in the circumstances that left Flint with a lead poisoned water system.  Lenny Bernstein and Joby Warrick, reporters for the Washington Post quote the committee’s ranking Democrat, Elijah Cummings of Maryland: “Contrary to Gov. Snyder’s recent claim that he requested this ‘opportunity to testify,’ the reality is that he is finally bowing to mounting public pressure to answer questions before Congress about the central and critical role his administration played in this man-made disaster.”

Snyder was, according to the Post‘s reporters, considered a rising political star when he became governor in 2011. He was at the time a venture capitalist who had presided over the successful Gateway computer company, and he promised to run Michigan like a successful business.  After a Michigan law to permit appointed emergency fiscal managers for municipalities and school districts was defeated by referendum in November 2012, he got it reinserted into an appropriations bill that is, in Michigan, referendum-proof.  And his emergency fiscal managers have been his tool not only for managing struggling municipalities, but also for the state’s poorest school districts.  After Darnell Earley finished his stint in Flint, Snyder put him in charge of the Detroit Public Schools.

The thing is that the emergency fiscal managers are appointed by Governor Snyder not so much to worry about the quality of government services for citizens or about the checks and balances that encourage public accountability and transparency.  They are fiscal managers, and their charge is to impose austerity measures to stave off public bankruptcy.  In Flint, Darnell Earley started using water from the Flint River instead of more expensive, pre-treated water from Detroit, and he saved money by leaving out the anti-corrosives that would have kept lead and iron from leaching out of the pipes.

And in the Detroit Schools, Darnell Earley just kept on turning short-term debt into longer range obligations that now total $3.5 billion.  He closed schools and let the buildings become decrepit.  Without very pricey help from the state legislature, the District is now scheduled to run out of money at the beginning of April.

Here is the latest from reporter Chad Livengood of the Detroit News: “A bipartisan consensus appears to be forming among lawmakers that the state is on the hook for the DPS financial rescue.”  A rescue would be appropriate as the huge deficit has continued to accrue since the state began its most recent takeover of the district in 2009.  Here is what appears to be happening in the legislature: “The Michigan Legislature is preparing to consider a $50 million bailout to keep the Detroit Public Schools operating through June to avert the specter this spring of payless paydays and 46,000 children locked out of shuttered buildings… As their own spring break looms, lawmakers have two weeks to act on Detroit school district Emergency Manager Steven Rhodes’ request for the emergency funding, while a larger debate plays out over Gov. Rick Snyder’s $715 million, 10-year plan to relieve the Detroit district of debt piled up by Rhodes’ predecessors and create a new debt-free district.”

Steven Rhodes, the retired U.S. Bankruptcy Judge who presided over the Detroit municipal bankruptcy, was appointed emergency manager of the Detroit Public Schools by Gov. Snyder early in March to take over from Darnell Earley, who resigned his position as of the end of February.

Snyder’s negotiations with legislative Democrats have forced the governor to make some concessions.  First, he has pushed Republican legislators to put some boundaries on the authorization of new charter schools that drain students and money out of the school district.  An enormous problem in Detroit has been out-of-control, unregulated charter schools, and the plan being considered by the legislature would impose some limits on the launch of new charters, according to the Detroit News report: “The latest plan floated in the Senate would revive Snyder’s proposed citywide Detroit Education Commission and empower it to block new charters from setting up shop in Detroit near existing high-performing schools operated by the district or charters.”  A spokesman for Governor Snyder explained that “the governor’s office is seeking ‘quality choice’ for Detroit’s fractured educational landscape.” Even Robin Lake, of the pro-charter, pro-choice Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, questioned her previous assumptions about the expansion of school choice after she observed the problems in Detroit: “Whose job is it to fix the problems facing parents in Detroit?  Our interviews with leaders in the city suggest that no one knows the answer.  It is not the state, which defers oversight to local education agencies and charter authorizers.  It is not DPS (Detroit Public Schools), which views charters as a threat to its survival.  It is not charter school authorizers, who are only responsible for ensuring that the schools they sponsor comply with the state’s charter-school law.  It is not the mayor, who thus far sees education as beyond his purview.  And it is not the schools themselves, which only want to fill their seats and serve the children they enroll.  No one in Detroit is responsible for ensuring that all neighborhoods and students have high-quality options or that parents have the information and resources they need to choose a school.  ‘It’s a free-for-all,’ one observer said. ‘We have all these crummy schools around, and nobody can figure out how to get quality back under control….’” Charter school lobbyists are reported by the Detroit News, however, to be pressing legislative Republicans to oppose Snyder’s plan, which, they say, will “increase the enrollment of the new Detroit school district at the expense of competitors.”

Second Snyder has agreed to get rid of the state-run Education Achievement Authority (EAA), a state funded, $84 million joint venture with Eastern Michigan University that pulled 15 of  Detroit’s poorest schools under state management.  EAA was supposed to take over other struggling schools outside of Detroit, but EAA has itself experienced mismanagement, and its schools have not demonstrated improvement. Eastern Michigan’s board of regents voted in February to terminate the university’s role in the partnership, a move that would have phased out the EAA by June of 2017.  Now Snyder says he will shut down EAA, and he will let Detroit’s citizens elect a local school board in August to put the school district back under local control, though he would continue to involve the state in turning around the 15 schools currently assigned to EAA.

Rhodes, Snyder’s new appointed emergency manager for the Detroit Public Schools, has said that his goal is, “to restore local control of the district as quickly and efficiently as possible.”  In a move to build community support in Detroit, Rhodes has appointed a school superintendent, Alycia Meriweather, a Detroit native, veteran teacher, and former head of curriculum for the school district.

Snyder has proposed a complicated state-local, two district arrangement as a path to long range solvency for the school district.  The state would grant funds to run the schools while local property taxes would flow to the “old” district to pay off the debt.

The Michigan legislature will continue to negotiate the long-range plan.  For now it is engaged in a more urgent project before the legislature itself goes on its spring break on March 24: pass short term debt relief to keep the teachers paid and Detroit’s 45,000 students in classes until the school year ends in June.

In the meantime, Governor Snyder faces serious political problems and faces threat of a recall.  Writing for the NY Times, Julie Bosman recently described Snyder and his challenges: “Mr. Snyder’s opponents have said that the governor’s political crisis is one of his own making, the result of a disconnected management style and lack of knowledge of the workings of government.”  “Many Michigan voters now blame him for how he handled two of the state’s biggest debacles, the tainted water crisis in Flint and the tattered Detroit public schools.”  “For a man who swept into office in 2010 by promoting his resume as a no-nonsense accountant and businessman who was above politics, Governor Snyder now finds himself in the middle of the kind of bitter partisan warfare that he has long disdained.”

Detroit Schools’ Pending Fiscal Collapse Endangers Over 45,000 Children

The public schools in Detroit, Michigan—a school district that serves over 45,000 students—may run out of money in April.  The mess is so complicated that it is hard to know even how to describe it.  How to address it would require strong leadership that appears to be lacking in Michigan these days.

The state is a one-party, all Republican state.  Its governor and legislature are unified in their commitment to lowering taxes through austerity budgeting.  In education they have also proven to be pro-privatization at least in the biggest and poorest cities.

One thing is certain. The kind of thing that is happening in Detroit is unlikely to affect your children personally unless you live in one of the 10 most distressed large U.S. cities profiled in the NY Times last week—Cleveland; Detroit;  Newark; Toledo; San Bernardino, Calif; Stockton, Calif.; Milwaukee; Buffalo; Memphis; and Cincinnati or a similar smaller city like Camden or Gary or Youngstown or Hartford or Flint. What is alarming is that Detroit’s public school crisis has not created any kind of urgent public sense that it must be remedied immediately.

The situation in Detroit’s schools has been a long time in the making.  A lot of deplorable choices have been made by politicians over the years.  Here are some of the major problems.

First, the school district has a staggering $3.5 billion long-term deficit.

Second, fifteen of Detroit’s schools were, several years ago, turned into a state Education Achievement Authority that has never encompassed more than this small group of the city’s schools.  Earlier this month, Eastern Michigan University’s Board of Regents voted to pull out of the EAA coalition, which will effectively eliminate this experiment that everybody agrees has failed to serve its students, but according to state law, phasing out the EAA will take 18 months.  The EAA’s current budget for 2015-1016 (all state dollars) is over $84 million that could be, one assumes, invested in the city’s schools.

Third, Michigan has, in Detroit, been committed to private management of schools through a rapidly expanded charter sector that has sucked children and money away from the city’s traditional public schools.  In June of 2014, a Detroit Free Press expose described the underwriters of a powerful pro-charter lobby in Lansing, investors like pro-charter, pro-voucher Dick and Betsy DeVos; Jim and John Walton, and J.C. Huizenga, founder of the for-profit National Heritage Academies.  The legislature has never created oversight of charter school authorizers to require them to shut down schools that perform poorly.  Seventy-nine percent of Michigan’s charter schools are managed for-profit, with nearly a third of the state’s charter schools located in Detroit.  Even Robin Lake, of the pro-charter, pro-choice Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, questioned her previous assumptions about the expansion of school choice after she observed the problems in Detroit: “Whose job is it to fix the problems facing parents in Detroit?  Our interviews with leaders in the city suggest that no one knows the answer.  It is not the state, which defers oversight to local education agencies and charter authorizers.  It is not DPS (Detroit Public Schools), which views charters as a threat to its survival.  It is not charter school authorizers, who are only responsible for ensuring that the schools they sponsor comply with the state’s charter-school law.  It is not the mayor, who thus far sees education as beyond his purview.  And it is not the schools themselves, which only want to fill their seats and serve the children they enroll.  No one in Detroit is responsible for ensuring that all neighborhoods and students have high-quality options or that parents have the information and resources they need to choose a school.  ‘It’s a free-for-all,’ one observer said. ‘We have all these crummy schools around, and nobody can figure out how to get quality back under control….’”

Julie Bosman in yesterday’s NY Times summarizes the depth of Detroit Public Schools’ fiscal woes: “(T)he district’s financial problems are crippling, officials said, The enrollment loss has resulted in a steep decline in revenue for the district, which depends partly on per-pupil funding from the state.  That has made it more difficult to reduce debt, maintain buildings and pay for fixed costs.”

Governor Rick Snyder and the Michigan Senate back a plan now being considered by the legislature to address the financial crisis in the Detroit schools, a plan that would, according to Michigan’s EclectaBlog, form, “two districts, one which has all the debt and another which would receive all the per-pupil state and federal funding and would educate kids…  A transfer of $250 million from the state’s general fund would be made to create a new DPS district.  A source of funding to pay off the district’s (immediate) $515-million debt has not been identified…  Detroit-area lawmakers are not happy with it, as you might imagine.”

EclectaBlog continues: “But that’s the ‘good’ plan.  Another plan being rolled out in the House of Representatives is such a blatant attempt to use Shock Doctrine politics to destroy public education that it is gobsmacking in its audacity.  Their plan restructures power to the democratically-elected Board of Education but not for eight years.  It also strips the right of teachers to collectively bargain for anything but wages and benefits.  Working conditions? Nope.  Work schedules? Nope…  The House’s approach would allow the new district to hire teachers with ‘alternate’ certification meaning that they wouldn’t have to be as qualified as teachers in any other school district.  It would also tie teachers’ pay and benefits to student academic progress despite the fact that most of what determines a child’s success in school is tied to his or her level of poverty.”

Darnell Earley, the emergency manager of Detroit’s schools who ended his tenure yesterday at the end of February—the very same emergency fiscal manager appointed by Governor Snyder to impose austerity budgeting on Flint and the man who presided over the lead poisoning of the city’s water supply, is described by the NY Times’ Julie Bosman defining what he expected of himself as the emergency fiscal manager of Detroit’s school district.  He was hired to impose austerity, and he seems satisfied with what he accomplished: “He said some of the mess had slowly been cleaned up.  Enrollment, which had dropped to 45,000 this year from 150,000 in 2000, had begun to stabilize.  He eliminated almost 90 administrative positions and whittled down the number of departments in the district’s central office.  ‘We’ve eliminated a lot of the bureaucracy.  I would like to think that we did what we needed to do. And we’ve set the Detroit Public Schools on a course of long-term financial solvency and long-term sustainability.'”  Despite that he claims to have established solvency and sustainability, Earley also confesses hopelessness unless, he says, the legislature enacts the Governor’s and Senate’s plan: “Without that, all bets are off.  The whole thing will just kind of bottom out.”

The editorial board of the Detroit Free Press is much clearer about the urgency of the problem than Mr. Earley seems to be: “Are the Republican leaders of the state House of Representatives so craven, so insensible to the fact that their work affects children, that they’d risk the futures of the 47,000 souls enrolled in DPS with a slate of ideologically driven ‘reforms’ sure to divide any vote along party lines?  Sadly we know the answer to that.”

Emergency Managers Burden Detroit Public Schools with Staggering Deficit

What is happening most notably in Detroit but also in Philadelphia and Chicago would not be possible in your public schools if you live in a prosperous community or a middle income suburb, or a small city or town with a mix of rich and middle income and poor families.  The plight of the public schools and their teachers and their students in these big cities and others scattered across the states is the result of structural poverty and powerlessness and the unwillingness of local and state officials to find a way fairly to serve the children.  As is happening right now in Detroit and Chicago, everybody is blaming the teachers’ pension funds and by extension blaming the teachers.

Here is what has actually been happening.  In Chicago the school district pays into the state teachers’ pension when required to do so, but then the school district borrows the money right back out.  In Detroit, the school district has pretty often over the years failed to pay in what is required.  It has not only withheld its own contributions, but according to a recent report from the Citizens Research Council of Michigan, it has sometimes missed contributing each teacher’s own share—the part withheld from each teacher’s paycheck. The financial morass is so convoluted and arcane that nobody can really understand the details.  The fact is that these school districts—and in Detroit the state emergency managers who were supposedly appointed to deal with the district’s financial crisis—have put the school districts so far in debt that nobody knows how to dig them out.

This week Detroit’s teachers have been staging a sick-out to bring attention to the problems in the schools where they work.  The Associated Press reports that on Tuesday the mayor of Detroit (whose city, by Michigan law, is a separate jurisdiction from the school district) visited some of the schools across the city.  He found a dead mouse in one school; in others he found children shivering in their coats all morning as the poorly heated buildings warmed up after a cold night.  Neither his visit nor the protests of the city’s teachers have speeded up any kind of solution coming from Lansing.  Reporting for The Guardian, Ryan Felton explains: “Teachers say students are already devastated by conditions in the district, which is facing financial calamity with liabilities of $3 billion.”

The district currently serves 47,000 students, and Republican Governor Rick Snyder has proposed splitting the district, turning more schools into charters, and using property taxes to pay off the debt instead of for educating the children.  Felton explains that nearly half the state’s per-pupil funding currently pays for debt servicing instead of educating the children.  One of teachers’ primary complaints is that class sizes are astronomical, a not-surprising situation in a district neglecting to hire more teachers it says it cannot afford.  Last April, John Eligon of the NY Times explained how Governor Snyder proposes to revamp the system and its finances: “The current district, with the emergency manager and current school board, will take on the operating debt and make sure it is paid off through a tax levy that collects about $72 million a year.  Meanwhile, under the plan, a new district called the City of Detroit Education District would be created and would rely on additional funding from the state of up to $72 million a year to operate.  The bond debt would go to the new district, to be paid down by a tax that is currently collected.”  It’s not hard to see why the president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, Steve Conn, commented: “It’s just layer after layer of bureaucracy and playing funny with the money.”

The merits of Snyder’s proposal and its deficiencies are meaningless to date because Snyder, a Republican, has been unable to get his all-Republican legislature to weigh in on the plan.  Detroit’s problems are complicated by a declining population and an over-built, mostly for-profit, and largely unregulated charter sector.  As charter schools have rapidly expanded, they have sucked students and state funding out of the public schools.  Even Robin Lake, of the pro-charter, pro-choice Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, questioned her previous assumptions about the expansion of school choice after she observed the problems in Detroit: “Whose job is it to fix the problems facing parents in Detroit?  Our interviews with leaders in the city suggest that no one knows the answer.  It is not the state, which defers oversight to local education agencies and charter authorizers.  It is not DPS (Detroit Public Schools), which views charters as a threat to its survival.  It is not charter school authorizers, who are only responsible for ensuring that the schools they sponsor comply with the state’s charter-school law.  It is not the mayor, who thus far sees education as beyond his purview.  And it is not the schools themselves, which only want to fill their seats and serve the children they enroll.  No one in Detroit is responsible for ensuring that all neighborhoods and students have high-quality options or that parents have the information and resources they need to choose a school.  ‘It’s a free-for-all,’ one observer said. ‘We have all these crummy schools around, and nobody can figure out how to get quality back under control….’”

Here is the conclusion of the new report from the Citizens Research Council of Michigan: “Detroit Public Schools has $3.5 billion in outstanding debt.  Nearly half of this amount, $1.67 billion, is capital liabilities payable with a dedicated millage… The balance of DPS’s liabilities are related to legacy costs and repaying short-term borrowings converted to long-term debt by state-appointed emergency managers.  This includes $1.3 billion that represents DPS’s estimated share of the unfunded actuarial accrued liabilities for retiree pension and health care costs…. A plan that solves the district’s money problems without addressing what is taking place in the classroom will not set the district up for future success.  Similarly, any financial plan that only deals with the district’s near-term fiscal woes (cash flow for example) will not prove lasting and will not support student learning over the long haul if current financial problems are shifted to future students.”

In Michigan’s poorest urban areas it has been pretty clear that Governor Snyder’s appointed emergency managers—people whose power is not constrained by checks and balances as they can override locally elected city councils and school boards and are given the power to abrogate union contracts—have been neglecting the needs of children. The lead poisoning of Flint’s public water supply, under Darnell Earley, Snyder’s appointed emergency manager of that city, has been widely reported. Now we learn that Governor Snyder has appointed Darnell Earley as the emergency manager of the Detroit Public Schools. While the schools’ financial crisis predates Earley, Snyder’s appointment of Earley to lead Detroit’s public schools ironically highlights how absolutely Michigan is failing to protect the basic rights of the state’s poorest children.

Michigan ACLU Exposes Educational Catastrophe in Gov. Rick Snyder’s Takeover of Detroit’s Schools

Metro Detroit Times has just published an extraordinary expose of the software-based curriculum that was imposed in 2012 in 12 Detroit, Michigan schools.  These were the bulk of schools in Michigan Governor Rick Snyder’s new Education Achievement Authority (EAA), a state agency created to take over Michigan’s schools with the lowest test scores.  “In all, about 10,000 students—largely poor, predominantly African American, often lagging years behind in terms of academics—would be the test subjects.”

According to the report’s author, Curt Guyette, an investigative reporter with the Michigan American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Snyder’s state school takeover was intended to originate with a number of low-scoring schools in Detroit and then take over so-called failing schools across the state; however, the legislation to expand the Education Achievement Authority beyond Detroit never passed in the legislature.  Snyder is known to have modeled his idea on the Louisiana Recovery School District, that took over public schools in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina,

Guyette describes how the EAA was created in Michigan, “The system itself would be unique, with all strings leading back to the governor. The legal loophole through which the EAA slipped into being is a little-used state law that allows two units of government, acting in cooperation, to create a third public entity.  In this case, it was Detroit Public Schools (DPS)—under the control of a Snyder-appointed emergency manager—and the Eastern Michigan University Board of Regents, the majority of whom are gubernatorial appointees, that entered into what’s called an inter-local agreement that created the EAA.  It is overseen by an 11-person board, with the governor appointing seven members and EMU and the DPS’s emergency manager each selecting two more.”

In 2012, EAA hired John Covington as chancellor.  Covington had recently left Kansas City Public Schools (just two weeks before that school district lost its accreditation).  Covington brought along a team from Kansas City, headed up by Mary Esselman, who became the EAA’s deputy chancellor and who led the launch of a massive, software-based curriculum called Buzz—developed by one Utah company, Agilix Labs, and supplemented with additional educational software from another Utah company, the School Improvement Network.

All this was supposed to “personalize” and “individualize” learning for the students in Detroit’s experiment.  “But in reality, what internal EAA documents reveal is the extent to which teachers and students were, over the course of two school years, used as whetstones to hone a badly flawed product being pitched as cutting-edge technology.”  Mary Esselman is reported to have described the adoption of the Buzz program: “We’re building this plane as we fly it.”

Students in the EAA schools increased test scores at what seemed to be an astounding rate, but it was later exposed that the high test scores were from “Scantron” tests that accompanied the Buzz program, and students were being allowed to take the tests over and over to improve their scores.  “In stark contrast to the internal test results are the state’s standardized achievement tests, known as MEAP.  The most recent MEAP results show that a high majority of EAA students are either stagnating in terms of reaching math and reading proficiency, or falling even further behind.”

According to teachers, some named and some remaining anonymous due to fear for their jobs, the Buzz program lacked curriculum for months in several required subjects. About Buzz, one teachers says, “To say it was incomplete when it arrived is giving it too much credit.  The software was in a state that any other firm would have never released it.”  In one e-mail  a School Improvement Network “coach” assigned to Detroit wrote to a staffer at Agilix: “I am having a hard time trying to trouble shoot what exactly is going on at Law with their courses.  Currently their Spanish, Music and Gym teachers have nothing but a yellow screen appearing in Buzz…”  Through 2013,  frantic support coaches from School Improvement Network continued e-mailing company staff that they were unable to help teachers and students use the Buzz curriculum due to technical glitches.

A teacher reports that when EAA took over, administrators dumped textbooks formerly used by Detroit Public Schools, which forced teachers to use the Buzz software, the only content provided by EAA.  Teachers interviewed for this investigation describe how students would progress through a cycle of lessons calibrated to be based on their on-line progress only to have the entire series disappear from their computers, requiring that they start over and repeat days’ of work.  Students interviewed for the investigation report that students breached the Buzz program’s firewall to enable themselves and their peers to surf the internet including pornography chat rooms.

What Guyette describes is the destruction of schools that were already struggling, even as Mary Esselman and promoters at Agilix and the School Improvement Network collaborated to promote the software to funders and to other school districts. While it is not suggested that Esselman was paid as a spokesperson for Agilix and the School Improvement Network, it is clear from e-mails secured by ACLU that she and Chancellor Covington traveled widely to promote their software-based schools.  In one e-mail Curt Allen from Agilix writes to Covington and Esselman: “Thank you very much for making the trip to participate in the Datapalooza today… Thank you for being pioneers.”

E-mails printed at the end of the article demonstrate that all through the fall of 2012, after the software had been launched and was being widely used, Mary Esselman and others in Detroit were begging Agilix and School Improvement Network to fix bugs in the system and send support staff to Detroit to help work out major problems.  At one point in November, Mary Esselman e-mails Aglix support staff: “Guys… We have Eli Broad, the governor, Head of Education in the House and Senate, hedge funders, etc. coming Friday and the students need at least one day in the unit prior to their visit.  If we don’t fix this they will not be on the platform and it will be a debacle.  This is important because… we have to generate funding.  Please help us figure out why they are not accessing the new unit.” Her worry is about impressing potential funders, not about the students who are struggling to work with the computer program that has replaced text books in their school.

By the summer of 2013, Mary Esselman herself has become frustrated with both Agilix and the Student Improvement Network as problems with the Buzz on-line curriculum persist despite months’ of requests for assistance from the software developers: “Needless to say I am extremely disappointed.  Most of the items have been on the list for almost 12 months–18 months for the reports and 36 months for the reports if you add the fact that they also did not get finished in Kansas City.  I understand that everyone wants the product to go beyond the EAA but the problems with the interface in many cases… have been on the fix list since last summer and before and the product is not viable at scale without them…”

In June of 2014, EAA Chancellor John Covington resigned after it became known that he had racked up credit card bills for travel and other expenses of $240,000.  The School Improvement Network re-randed the Buzz software with a new name, GAGE, and began advertising it to school districts across the country.  “Asked what the current status of Buzz is, EAA spokesman Mario Morrow said, ‘Everything is under review.  It is a new day for the EAA.'”

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.

College Dean Quits Board of Governor Rick Snyder’s Education Achievement Authority

On October 25, I blogged about a protest by faculty in the College of Education at Eastern Michigan University, which is a partner with Governor Rick Snyder’s Education Achievement Authority.  Today it was reported that the Dean of Eastern Michigan University’s College of Education, Jann Joseph, has resigned from the board directors of the Education Achievement Authority, effective last Saturday.

The Education Achievement Authority is the body through which the state takes over schools whose standardized tests are in the bottom five percent across the state. Under the auspices of the Education Achievement Authority, Governor Snyder has been appointing emergency managers for struggling districts,  emergency managers who have the power to abrogate union contracts and even to close struggling school districts.

Eastern Michigan is the only one of Michigan’s public universities to partner with Education Achievement Authority. Faculty in Eastern Michigan’s College of Education have continued to demand that the university sever its two-year partnership with the Education Achievement Authority, and it appears that further protests are scheduled.  Several school districts have refused to place student teachers from the university as a way to protest its ongoing partnership with Governor Snyder’s education policies.