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Clash over public education in Michigan

Aug 30, 2016

There are those who think that Governor Rick Snyder has been made to bear too much of the blame for the mess in Flint.

There may be some truth in that.

The governor certainly didn’t set out to poison the water, though, as Harry Truman said the buck stops on the desk of the top man.

But there is an area where the governor may not have gotten enough criticism – and that is some of his policy choices in public education. The worst of these may be the Education Achievement Authority, or the EAA.

It was supposed to “fix” Detroit’s worst-performing schools.

The governor carved 15 of them out of the Detroit Public Schools and set them up as a separate district.

Test scores did not improve. The state tried to conceal that cost overruns were rampant, and there were other horrible problems.

Eventually, he wanted to take this statewide. But the adventure has been a disaster from day one. Test scores did not improve. The state tried to conceal that cost overruns were rampant, and there were other horrible problems.

The first chancellor, John Covington, who was dumped two years ago, liked to ride around in expensive limousines and attend conferences, but wasn’t too keen on actually showing up to get the job done.

Today, the latest EAA scandal is the revelation that the district owes Detroit Public Schools something like $15 million in unpaid rent and technology bills.

The current chancellor, Veronica Conforme, has been unsuccessfully begging for a bailout. In any event, the EAA, after wasting millions and accomplishing nothing, is to go out of business next June.

... the EAA, after wasting millions and accomplishing nothing, is to go out of business next June.

But there is another problem looming that may well result in the state board of education suing the governor.

Last year, Mr. Snyder yanked the School Reform Office away from the jurisdiction of the State Board of Education, and transferred it to the Department of Technology, Management and Budget.

His official reason for this, according to one of his now-departed press secretaries, was that “there needs to be a more proactive approach to addressing these most struggling schools, to benefit the kids.” That was 17 months ago.

But the real motivation, others said, was because the state board of education is controlled by Democrats. This might not matter much if the Reform Office was now able to show progress.

But so far, they too look like the gang who couldn’t shoot straight.

Two weeks ago, Natasha Baker, director of the School Reform Office, said there were more than 100 failing schools, and indicated the state was going to start to close them.

Soon she was saying it wouldn’t be nearly that many schools, and now the Reform Office says they aren’t going to close any at all.

Casandra Ulbrich, vice president of the state board of education, told me that the board of education had adopted a policy on state school turnaround, and that the board expected the reform office to comply with it.

She noted that Michigan’s Constitution says “leadership and general supervision over all public education …is vested in a state board of education,” which it says “is to serve as the general planning and coordinating body for all public education.”

The board thinks that gives them clear authority to set policy. The question is whether the governor wants to spend his dwindling political capital fighting over this in the courts.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.