Even from Its Deathbed, Michigan State-Takeover EAA Continues to Rob Detroit District

Michigan’s governor, Rick Snyder, has done everything he could to privatize and take over and bankrupt the state’s poorest school districts.

Since 2012, Muskegon Heights and Highland Park were turned over to Mosaica and the Leona Group, private, for-profit charter management organizations. Both went broke and abandoned these projects. The state has also intervened in other poor districts like Inkster and Buena Vista and Pontiac with closures and takeovers and privatization the only result. Then there have been the governor-appointed austerity emergency managers, put in place to cut costs.  In Detroit a succession of these so-called fiscal managers burdened the Detroit Public Schools with a staggering long-term debt of $3.5 billion. Then there has been the out-of-control charter school sector that has sucked students and money out of Detroit’s public schools, but even as the legislature passed a plan in June to restructure and ameliorate the district’s debt, lawmakers left out the proposed Detroit Education Commission, which had been designed to provide some oversight of school choice district-wide.

On top of all this, there has been Michigan’s Education Achievement Authority (EAA), a state takeover district created by the Snyder administration back in 2012 in collaboration with Eastern Michigan University and modeled on Louisiana’s Recovery School District.  Its supporters said state takeover would improve Michigan’s lowest-achieving schools through the imposition of state management.  The Education Achievement Authority never did well enough to expand beyond the 15 Detroit schools it originally seized. John Covington who was brought in as EAA’s chancellor, purchased from a private contractor the expensive, ineffective electronic BUZZ curriculum that, it turned out, was still in the development stage and not fully functional. Covington was forced out after a scandal about his personal expenses. EAA was always unpopular with Eastern Michigan University’s board of regents, who finally voted last February to pull out, effectively setting an 18 month sunset for EAA.  It’s final demise is guaranteed by the new legislative rescue plan for Detroit’s schools.

But the damage wrought by the Education Achievement Authority continues to surface even as its demise is guaranteed. Early this week it emerged that the EAA owes Detroit Public Schools millions of dollars. Here is reporter, Shawn Lewis in the Detroit News: “The Education Achievement Authority owes Detroit Public Schools $14.8 million in unpaid rent for the use of former DPS classroom buildings, plus information technology and safety services for fiscal years 2015 and 2016….”  Lewis adds that last February, the EAA’s current state-appointed chancellor, Veronica Conforme, asked then-Emergency Manager Darnell Earley (of Flint water notoriety) for relief from the debt.

All this emerged as internal e-mails were made public this week, including one that was sent by Thomas Saxton, of the State Treasury Department, to officials in the governor’s office: “In February, the EAA (Veronica) approached Darnell at DPS with a request for relief from the aforementioned debt through an amendment to the lease agreement which would forgive all of the EAA rent debt… I advised Darnell not to sign it.  I have spoken to Veronica once about this and it has come up in conversation(s) with Steven Rhodes (the emergency manager who replaced Darnell Earley).  Darnell did not sign the amendment before he left and now Veronica has requested Judge Rhodes to sign it…. While we understand forgiving this debt would clear up the EAA’s books, it would be detrimental to DPS.”

Lewis writes that the debt being discussed in this e-mail conversation included $6.5 million for rent in 2016, $1.5 million for IT (information technology) services and $400,000 for safety services.  Lewis adds that on Monday of this week, Ms. Conforme announced that the EAA will pay the full amount for safety and police services, while EAA continues to negotiate with the Detroit Public Schools about the rent owed by EAA.

In a follow-up, Detroit Free Press reporter, Ann Zaniewski adds that EAA’s Chancellor Conforme believes the Detroit rescue legislation, adopted by the Michigan legislature in June, erased EAA’s debt to the Detroit school district for rent: “EAA officials told the Free Press that Conforme told state officials in the spring that the EAA was building its budget around the lease debt being eliminated… At an EAA board meeting in June, an EAA official said the annual fees the district is supposed to pay for using DPS buildings dropped from $6 million to $1 million because of recent education reform legislation.”

It’s not yet clear whether Detroit Public Schools, struggling to crawl out from under massive debt, will be able to recoup back rent from the state that is supposed to be involved in the negotiated financial rescue of the Detroit Public Schools.  What is clear is that the Education Achievement Authority, a state takeover imposed by the Snyder administration that was supposed to be another way the state would help some of Michigan’s poorest children by improving their schools, has just been one more drain on the budget of the Detroit Public Schools along with being an educational failure.

Here is the analysis of Thomas Pedroni, a professor of education at Wayne State University: “The revelation of the $14.8 million debt, which exists at Snyder’s pleasure, comes at a time when DPS children have faced a siphoning off of classroom dollars that might have been used to alleviate ballooning class sizes, repair dilapidated and dangerous buildings, and attract and retain high quality certified teachers in the district… Snyder’s control of the EAA, much like his control of Flint, has always been about enriching business opportunities whatever the cost to the health and wellbeing and future lives of Black children.”

Report Critiques State Takeover School Districts in LA, TN, and MI; Michigan’s Will Be Dissolved

The Center for Popular Democracy released a fine new report earlier this week about three “‘takeover districts’ in which schools that are deemed ‘chronically failing’ are removed from the local school district and placed in a statewide district with a separate governance structure that is far less transparent and accountable to the public.”  The new report covers the Louisiana Recovery District, the Tennessee Achievement School District, and the Michigan Education Achievement Authority.

Such “recovery” or “achievement” school districts are a little different than direct state takeovers of school districts like those in Newark, New Jersey, or Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, or Highland Park, Michigan.  The states operating the “recovery” or “achievement” districts have created a separate statewide school district with the plan of removing particular low-scoring schools from their local district and inserting them into a new statewide governance body.

One of the first things you notice about these so-called statewide districts, however, is that they haven’t really succeeded well enough to operate statewide.  Louisiana’s Recovery School District (RSD) existed before Hurricane Katrina, but the rules for state seizure of schools were expanded immediately after the hurricane to enable state seizure of almost all of New Orleans’ public schools.  The state has added to the RSD several other schools in East Baton Rouge Parish, Point Coupee Parish, and Caddo Parish, but the majority of schools administered by the Louisiana RSD remain in New Orleans.  In Tennessee, according to the new report, “The state has elected to focus on Memphis: 27 of 29 Achievement School District (ASD) schools are located in Memphis; the remaining two schools are in Nashville.”  And in Michigan’s Education Achievement Authority (EAA), although the original intention was to seize struggling schools across the state, the EAA was never expanded beyond the original 15 Detroit schools.

Here is what the Center for Popular Democracy concludes about the three state “achievement” or “recovery” school districts covered in this report:

Children have seen negligible improvement—or even dramatic setbacks—in their educational performance.”  For example, in Tennessee’s ASD, “Only six out of the 17 takeover schools had moved out of the bottom performance decile by the end of the 2013-2014 school year… ASD’s superintendent, Chris Barbic, stepped down in the summer of 2015.  In his resignation letter, he acknowledged that ‘achieving results in neighborhood schools is harder than in a choice environment.'”  In New Orleans, “The results for students in Louisiana under the RSD program have been anything but clear-cut.”  (Linda Darling Hammond and colleagues at Stanford University clarified one reason for this in a research brief last fall.  As New Orleans’ schools were sucked into the RSD after Hurricane Katrina, all the rules were bent, and charter schools were permitted to be selective. They continue to have entrance exams and competitive entrance requirements.  Not surprisingly, the highest scoring schools are also the most selective schools.)  And in Michigan’s EAA, “Between 2012 and 2013, 36 percent of students in EAA schools saw declines in their performance on Michigan’s MEAP methematics tests, and another 43 percent saw no improvement.  Thirty-six percent of EAA students also saw declines in MEAP reading performance….”

State takeover districts have created a breeding ground for fraud and mismanagement at the public’s expense.” In all three state takeover districts, “private interests stand ready to gain through both legal and illegal channels.  Real estate deals and fees paid to education consultants can siphon millions of dollars away from direct investment in the students enrolled… In New Orleans, much of the profiteering has been enabled by inadequate oversight and unscrupulous contractors.” “In Michigan, the EAA has used its students as guinea pigs to test for-profit educational software. The EAA established a ‘blended learning’ model, basing its curriculum on a for-profit educational software product called ‘Buzz,’ which… relegates teachers to ‘more of a facilitative role.’  The EAA paid a total of $350,000 to try out this previously untested software….  Teachers complained that the software did not work properly and was incomplete…. Finally, in 2015, the EAA made Buzz optional for instruction….”  And in Tennessee: “A joint audit by the State of Tennessee’s Comptroller of the Department of Education and the State Board of Education found mismanagement of federal funding as well as incorrect payment processing at the ASD between July 2012 and June 2014.”

Staff face high turnover and instability, creating a disrupted learning environment for children.” “Many times, the entire staff of all takeover schools has been fired at once, and is usually replaced by new teachers with far less experience.  The demographics of the teaching workforce can also change when teachers are brought in by external, private entities like Teach for America.”

Students of color and those with special needs face harsh disciplinary measures and discriminatory practices that further entrench a two-tiered educational system.”  The new report summarizes the details of the lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center and families whose children’s rights to special education services were violated by Louisiana RSD charters that accepted students but failed to provide services appropriate to their needs.  “Only in early 2015, after a federal judge approved a settlement order resolving a four-year old lawsuit, did the state commit to new oversight measures.  The settlement order delineated new safeguards for children with special needs, including a new independent monitor, an auditing procedure, provisions to evaluate special education programs when charter schools apply for renewal, and a requirement that the state creates a plan to identify all students in need of special education services.”  All three state “recovery” or “achievement” districts are reported to have overused  suspensions and harsh discipline.

***

The release of the Center for Popular Democracy’s report couldn’t be more timely.  Just a week ago, the Eastern Michigan University Board of Regents, one of the partners with the state of Michigan and the Detroit Public Schools in the formation of Michigan’s Education Achievement Authority, voted to withdraw its involvement in the EAA.  The university has been criticized by the public and by its own College of Education, its professors, and its students because the university’s Board of Regents agreed to participate back in 2011 without buy-in from members of the faculty of the College of Education.  The Detroit Free Press reports: “The formation of the EAA… in June 2011… was met with concern from the faculty, especially those from Eastern’s education school, which said they had not been consulted.  Faculty continued to be upset over the years, saying their expertise was not being used to help improve the district.” Over the years some public school districts have protested Eastern Michigan University’s involvement in the EAA by refusing to place the university’s student teachers in their public schools.

The Free Press quotes Jim Stapleton, a member of Eastern Michigan’s Board of Regents, describing why he voted to endorse the university’s separation from EAA: “Today, the (EAA) district is not even being run by someone with an educational background.  When coupled with the damage this arrangement has done to the reputation of our university and, particularly the retaliation that has taken place against our students just trying to start their careers for a decision our board made… this has been personally problematic for me for a while.”

The fact that Eastern Michigan University is pulling out of the Education Achievement Authority means, according to the original agreement that specifies a time line for eventual closure if any of the partners withdraws, that by June 30, 2017, the EAA will cease to exist, unless the legislature shuts it down before that.

Will Flint’s Lead Poisoning Wake Us Up to Disaster of State Takeovers and Austerity Budgets?

State takeovers of various sorts have been a favorite policy response of governors and state legislatures who seek an efficient solution to the problems of America’s poorest cities and school districts.  The question today is whether the lead poisoning of Flint, Michigan’s water supply and the attempt for months to hide the seriousness of this situation, all under Emergency Manager Darnell Earley—now serving as Emergency Manager of the Detroit Public Schools—will sufficiently awaken the public to the widespread neglect by state governments of so many of our poorest cities and school districts.

Last August, the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools released a major report, Out of Control: The Systematic Disenfranchisement of African American and Latino Communities Through School Takeovers, that traces the state takeovers of school districts and the abrogation of democracy as appointed state overseers commence to manage operations without the usual checks and balances imposed by elected boards of education.  That report describes the long-running New Jersey takeovers of Jersey City (since 1989), Paterson (since 1991), and Newark (since 1995); the Louisiana Recovery District that has fully charterized the New Orleans schools since Hurricane Katrina in 2005; the Tennessee Achievement School District that operates schools in Memphis and now in Nashville; the Michigan Education Achievement Authority by which Governor Rick Snyder has taken over 15 schools in Detroit since 2013; and two new state takeovers in 2015—the takeover of Milwaukee Schools that was logrolled last summer into the Wisconsin state budget, and Arkansas’ takeover of the schools in Little Rock.  The 2015 legislation to enable Ohio to take over Youngstown’s schools was too recent to have been covered in the report, and Nathan Deal’s proposal for a Georgia “Opportunity School District” has passed the legislature but must be affirmed by voters in a referendum in November, 2016.

Additionally, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder has the power to appoint emergency fiscal managers for municipalities and school districts deemed to be in financial emergency.  Emergency fiscal managers were first authorized by state law in Michigan in 1988.  In a referendum in November of 2012, the voters overturned the right of the governor to take over local municipal and school district juristictions deemed to be in financial emergency, but the all-Republican legislature came back with a tougher law that was passed before the end of that year. The 2012 law supposedly limits the tenure of austerity-budget emergency managers, but Governor Snyder has found a way to extend emergency management long-term.  Curt Guyette, an investigative reporter for the ACLU of Michigan explains: “(T)he managers were given extreme unchecked authority… (T)hey were given the ability to come in, clean up the problems and get out.  And so there was an 18-month time limit put on their terms.  Except that this governor is exploiting what amounts to a loophole in that law… (T)hese emergency managers serve for 17 months and 29 days, and the day before their term expires, they resign.  A new emergency manager is put in place, and the clock starts ticking all over again.  And they just shuffle them from one place to another.”

We now know that a couple of years ago, Michigan’s appointed emergency fiscal manager, Darnell Earley, approved a plan for Flint to save money by creating its own water system instead of buying already treated water from Detroit.  Chemicals to prevent release of lead from old, corroded pipes were not added to the water when Flint began taking water from the Flint River; the pipes corroded all over town; and the children of Flint began to experience epidemic lead poisoning.

Earley left Flint and was appointed Emergency Manager of the Detroit City Schools a year ago, not enough time for him to be blamed for all of the school district’s fiscal problems.  The state’s previous appointed emergency managers had already failed to correct a long-running financial crisis for Detroit’s schools, a crisis that has now culminated in the failure to pay required contributions into the state teachers’ pension fund and a practice of restructuring short term debt instead of making the needed payments.  Detroit City Schools currently have an accrued deficit of $3.5 billion.

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.”  Neither has the state legislature invested in public education, nor has the state devised a workable plan for equitable distribution of funding to help the school districts with the least capacity to generate local revenue. A new report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities documents that Michigan’s general state funding per student remains 7.5 percent lower than it was prior to the 2008 recession.

It is not only the emergency fiscal managers whose performance is in question in Michigan, but critics have also been raising very troubling questions about the other form of state takeover in that state, the Education Achievement Authority, that manages 15 of Detroit’s struggling schools. Michigan’s Education Achievement Authority was intended to have been expanded beyond Detroit, but low achievement and other problems have prevented its growth. Here is some troubling data released in mid-December: “Just one fourth-grader in schools run by the Education Achievement Authority—a state district created to turn around the worst performing schools in the state—passed the math portion of the exam…. Overall, only 1.2% of the students in the district passed in math and 5.6% passed in English language arts.  In some grades and subjects, not one student passed.”  Last spring, even Governor Snyder admitted to the failure of the Education Achievement Authority, when he issued an executive order to transfer the Education Achievement Authority from the Department of Education to the Department of Technology, Management and Budget, a department directly under Snyder’s control.  In his executive order, he declared, “Despite not achieving satisfactory outcomes, the current structure has neither implemented the rigorous supports and processes needed to create positive academic outcomes….”  In these words last March, Snyder condemns the results of the state takeover initiative he had himself created, though the test scores just released show no improvement under the new management plan he instituted last spring.

And there is more, this time about the implications of the state-imposed emergency fiscal manager on the Detroit Public Schools—news about cutting back on building maintenance under current Emergency Fiscal Manager Darnell Earley.  Here is Michigan’s Eclectablog: “Darnell Earley has been the Emergency Manager for DPS for a year now.  While the obscene state of many DPS schools is not solely on his shoulders, it’s clear that that he’s done nothing to solve the problems.  Once again, he has used the Emergency Managers’ toolkit of cutting, reductions, and other austerity measures to solve a problem that can only be resolved through investment and renewal… For months, labor unions and residents have been sounding the alarm that a plan by DPS to cut the number of certified, licensed boiler operators and switch to an untested, unmanned system of monitoring commercial boilers in schools is too dangerous.  Boilers are more likely to explode when not maintained and watched by licensed, certified operators… DPS is decreasing the number of operators from one per school to a one per every five schools… Getting to a school in time to avert an equipment failure that can cause an explosion will become almost impossible.”

Here is the analysis of Curt Guyette,  speaking in an interview with Democracy Now: “(O)ne of the things about the emergency manager law is that these managers were given extreme unchecked authority.  And the thinking was… they were given the ability to come in, clean up the problems and get out…  And the other thing is… the imposition of austerity.  This is what austerity looks like… So you have all the problems in these schools that you just reported on, because they’re treating it like a managerial problem rather than a structural problem.”  Guyette is asked to comment on the type of communities and school districts on which Michigan has imposed emergency fiscal managers: “With the exception of one, they are all majority African American.  And they’re also all very poor cities.  So this is a racial issue, and it’s a class issue.”

This blog recently covered the fiscal problems of Detroit Public Schools here.

Even If NCLB Is Reauthorized, States Push On with Punitive School Policies and Privatization

In an important piece last week for the Education Opportunity Network, Jeff Bryant looks at the way the dynamics are shifting in punitive education “reform.”  Even if Congress reauthorizes the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to take away No Child Left Behind’s federally prescribed turnarounds for schools in the lowest scoring 5 percent across the states, the punitive culture has been absorbed into the states themselves.  Reform that emphasizes sanctions, rather than state investment in education for equity, is particularly appealing to legislators in these times of tax cuts and austerity budgeting.  After all, more than half the states are not yet even investing as much as they were in public education prior to the Great Recession in 2008. Test-and-punish for the lowest-scoring schools is a popular strategy, because people outside the communities where it is imposed don’t feel the pain.  The flavor of the day as far as test-and-punish goes, according to Bryant is the state “Recovery School District,” as it is sometimes called, or state “Achievement School District.”

Bryant comments, “(T)here is a danger punitive ‘accountability’ policies from the federal government are about to pivot to even more unreasonable measures from states.  The danger, in particular, comes in the form of new policies being taken up by an increasing number of states to create special agencies—usually made up of non-elected officials—with the power to swoop into communities, take over local school governance, and turn schools over to private management groups often associated with large charter chains.  These appointed boards often take on the guise of a shining knight—using names like Recovery School District or Achievement School District.  But they are anything but gallant soldiers coming to the rescue.”

Recovery School District.  Achievement School District. They are the very same thing.  Though Bryant’s review of this trend doesn’t go back ten years, the latest wave of state school takeovers began in the winter after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans.  Naomi Klein describes the birth of the Louisiana Recovery School District in her 2007 book, The Shock Doctrine:  “In sharp contrast to the glacial pace with which the levees were repaired and the electricity grid was brought back online, the auctioning off of New Orleans’ school system took place with military speed and precision.  Within nineteen months, with most of the city’s poor residents still in exile, New Orleans’ public school system had been almost completely replaced by privately run charter schools.  Before Hurricane Katrina, the school board had run 123 public schools; now it ran just 4… New Orleans teachers used to be represented by a strong union; now the union’s contract had been shredded, and its forty-seven hundred members had all been fired… New Orleans was now, according to the New York Times, ‘the nation’s preeminent laboratory for the widespread use of charter schools’…. I call these orchestrated raids on the public sphere in the wake of catastrophic events, combined with the treatment of disasters as exciting market opportunities, ‘disaster capitalism.’” (The Shock Doctrine, pp. 5-6)

Today’s school takeovers through Recovery School Districts or Achievement School Districts do not follow hurricanes or floods or earthquakes.  Instead the sense of catastrophe that is believed to create the need for takeover and the private school management through charters that inevitably follows is the clustering of low standardized test scores in the poorest neighborhoods of our cities—a clustering that has been correlated again and again with growing economic segregation overlaid on segregation by race.   The federal No Child Left Behind Act, which has since 2002 mandated annual standardized testing for all children and disaggregated and reported the test scores, has created the sense of crisis by persistently labeling the poorest performing schools and school districts.  And in our poorest city neighborhoods there is a crisis for the children and for their schools that, as institutions operating in communities of devastating poverty, almost inevitably become overwhelmed.  Politicians realize something must be done, and a Recovery School District for other people’s children is not as politically painful as equalizing school finance, for example.

As Bryant explains, Recovery School Districts and Achievement School Districts—empowered by state law to take over the worst scoring schools or school districts, bring in emergency managers with the power to close schools, abrogate union contracts and even turn whole school districts over to Charter Management Organizations—are an increasingly popular “answer” to our problem of “failing” schools and school districts. In Tennessee, the legislature created an Achievement School District (ASD), giving “appointed officials the power to override local governance and take control of the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools in the state.”  Operating first in Nashville and later adding Memphis, “ASD required districts to enforce, for their lowest performing schools, either or both of the following measures: fire school staff or hand the school over to a charter school management organization.  Conveniently, the ASD is also a charter authorizer, so it can designate any of its schools for charter takeover, and indeed it has done so numerous times.  In fact, the outgoing superintendent of the ASD, Chris Barbic, is the founder and ex-CEO of the Yes Prep chain of charter schools.”  Barbic resigned recently from the Tennessee Achievement School District when it became apparent that reading scores had dropped instead of improving as promised.

Bryant also sums up the story of the failed Michigan Education Achievement Authority, established in 2011 under Governor Rick Snyder.  Michigan’s recovery school district has been plagued with corruption and unable to raise test scores in Detroit.   Neither have Snyder’s state-apppointed emergency managers in Muskegon Heights and Highland Park school districts successfully turned around student achievement.  In fact the Charter Management Organizations brought in by emergency managers in Muskegon Heights and Highland Park—Mosaica and the Leona Group, both for-profits—have both quit, unable to turn a profit, despite their unprecedented power to close schools, fire teachers, and ignore contractual agreements with the unions.

Bryant reports that other states seeking to launch such “Recovery” or “Achievement” districts are Georgia, Pennsylvania, Nevada, Arkansas, Missouri, South Carolina, Texas, Utah and Wisconsin, where there is a move afoot to take over the Milwaukee Public Schools.  Even, “In New York, the state Education Department recently put 144 ‘persistently struggling’ schools under a new program that threatens them with ‘outside receivership.'”

Ohio instituted such a program in the last week of June.  The legislation was rushed through within 24 hours and without any opponent testimony permitted in the legislature.  The Plain Dealer editorialized on Sunday about the danger of this sort of legislation: “School reform is difficult.  It requires consensus, lots of public debate and no small amount of trust.  But the stealthy legislative steamrolling of the Youngstown Academic Distress Commission shamefully proves that’s not how many Republican members of the Ohio General Assembly or Ohio Superintendent of Public Instruction Richard Ross see it… The stealth provisions effectively abolish local control of schools after three years’ of failing grades and impose draconian changes that allow a single person appointed by a new commission established by the state to determine policies on pay, hiring, firing and charter schools, bypassing local school boards, administrators and unions… Abolishing local control in the dark of the night is not the right way to achieve strong school reform statewide.  And the new measure affects all public school districts in the future that earn failing grades for three consecutive years.”

If a Congressional conference committee can come to some agreement about reauthorizing the law we now call No Child Left Behind (and that may not be possible due to huge differences between House and Senate versions of the reauthorization bill), it is possible that Congress will lighten the heavy hand of federal test-and-punish.  But after a decade-and-a-half of everybody’s somehow swallowing the idea that we can punish schools into raising test scores—a period when Race to the Top dangled money in front of states that jumped to adopt punitive education policy into state law as the condition for getting a federal grant—we seem to lack the vision to see what needs to happen to improve the schools that serve our society’s very 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.