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.”


Education Faculty at Eastern Michigan University Stands Up to Governor Snyder

In her Washington Post column today, Valerie Strauss reports on 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 (EAA).  The EAA is the body through which the state takes over schools whose standardized tests are in the bottom five percent across the state.  These are the same schools that qualify to be turned around under the federal School Improvement Grants program, whose prescribed turnarounds include school closure and privatization.

According to Strauss, “Eastern Michigan University is the only university in the state that signed on to partner with the Education Achievement Authority.” Faculty in the College of Eduacation are protesting, arguing “that they had no input in the way the Education Achievement Authority is run and that they oppose the way EEA is being operated.”

In a letter reprinted by Strauss, the education faculty  request that the university’s participation in the Education Achievement Authority “be severed immediately.”  “We find the undermining of democratic processes represented in the creation of a district outside the purview of public decision-making and oversight to be in direct conflict with this unviersity’s mission and our legacy as a champion of public education.”

Eastern Michigan University faculty are protesting “that the EAA’s governance is secretive; that student and teacher turnover is excessive; that the EAA relies on young and inexperienced teachers, including many from Teach for America; that many teachers taught outside the areas for which they had certification.”

School districts where the College of Education typically places student teachers have begun protesting the university’s participation in the EAA partnership by refusing to place student teachers from EMU in their classrooms.  In their letter, the faculty members state: “From the start, EMU faculty were not invited to give our input into such an arrangement or asked for our expertise as the EAA was established.”

Governor Rick Snyder’s school reform programs include not only the EAA partnership but also the appointment of emergency fiscal managers for municipalities like Detroit and for school districts.  The emergency managers are making executive decisions without public oversight to abrogate contracts with teachers’ unions and to turn entire districts over to large national charter management organizations.

Governor Rick Snyder’s brand of school reform emphasizes efficiency over democratic oversight.  Michigan is the epicenter of such top-down reforms.