Commentary: Poor kids and the EAA

Apr 16, 2013

Ellen Cogen Lipton is a patent attorney who was born in Philadelphia, grew up in Alabama, and ended up in Michigan 20 years ago, after marrying a fellow law student from Southfield.

But she also comes from a family of educators, was a chemistry teacher herself, and has two kids in public schools in suburban Detroit. That’s a fairly interesting biography to begin with, but there’s more. She is also completing her third term in the state legislature.

Lipton wasn’t very political, until she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and felt it was urgent that Michigan approve a constitutional amendment allowing embryonic stem cell research.

Five years ago she won that battle, and got herself elected to the legislature that same year. Learning is important to her, and she knows that the Detroit Public Schools have not been doing the job.

You might think then that she’d be supportive of the experiment Governor Rick Snyder launched to try to fix our lowest-performing schools, the Educational Achievement Authority, known as the EAA.

This is sort of a pilot year for the EAA. The governor bypassed the legislature to create it by an “interlocal” agreement with Eastern Michigan University, and it is being tried in 15 schools in Detroit.

The governor wants to expand this statewide, and legislation to do so narrowly passed the House last month. It is probably all but certain to pass the Senate as well.

But Ellen Lipton is fighting against it, as are most Democrats. They say there are too many questions, and she is suspicious of the motives of those behind it.

“These are largely the same people who were behind the voucher plan John Engler and Dick DeVos were pushing a dozen years ago,” she told me over lunch yesterday.

She fears this is really going to be sort of a halfway house to move kids from low-performing schools into for-profit charters, where corporations see plenty of money to be made.

“What I am worried about is that we may be heading to a place where kids are educated for the needs of a particular employer or corporation,” not for their own sakes, she said.

Accordingly, Lipton attracted some notice by filing a Freedom of Information Act request asking for a lot of information about how the EAA works, how it spends money and for details on qualifications and turnover of the teaching staff. So far, she hasn’t gotten any answers.

There do seem to have been a fair number of problems so far with the authority, especially at the high school level. One eloquent English teacher at Mumford High, one of the EAA schools, wrote to the House Education committee and told them it wasn’t working, that “the reality is nowhere close to the dream that (they) are attempting to sell you,” and that student, parent and staff concerns were treated with extreme condescension.

When Michigan Radio reporter Sarah Cwiek attempted to talk to Mumford students a few days ago, she was escorted out of the building.

Representative Lipton thinks some of these concerns about the EAA ought to be seriously considered before we make this statewide law. And she has raised enough questions about it to make me wonder whether rushing to adopt it makes sense.

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