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The EAA is dead. What does that mean for the bigger Detroit schools picture?

Feb 8, 2016

A sign outside an EAA school advertised its "student-centered learning" philosophy in 2013. The attempt at a state turnaround schools district is now widely regarded as a failed experiment.
Credit Sarah Cwiek / Michigan Radio

Last week was the beginning of the end for the controversial Education Achievement Authority.

Republican state lawmakers announced the EAA would come to an end, in an effort to win Detroit lawmakers’ votes for bills to resolve the crisis in the Detroit Public Schools.  

And Eastern Michigan University regents voted to sever ties with the EAA. The school was one partner in the interlocal agreement that made the EAA, which never gained state legislative approval, possible.

But some say the end doesn’t come soon enough for the state-run school reform initiative.

When Gov. Snyder introduced the EAA concept in 2011, it was pitched as Michigan’s attempt as a statewide “turnaround district” for the lowest-performing 5% of schools.

But in four years of operation, it never expanded beyond 15 former Detroit public schools. And it’s been dogged by declining enrollment, poor student performance, and numerous allegations of mismanagement and corruption.

As a result, the EAA has never been popular with Detroit’s state lawmakers. Now, Gov. Snyder may need their votes to pass bills to prevent the financial collapse of the Detroit Public Schools — a collapse that would leave taxpayers on the hook for more than $500 million in state-backed debt.

But Detroit state Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo says Snyder will need to do more than promise to let the EAA “wind down” if he hopes to win lawmakers’ support.

Even with the EMU regents’ vote, the interlocal agreement language lets the EAA carry on until June, 2017. Gay-Dagnogo says invoking “breach of contract” language could end it sooner, though.

“There’s enough to give reason to end the agreement today,” Gay-Dagnogo said. “What was done was really, to me, more of a façade than a good-faith action to show that the system hasn’t worked.”

Gay-Dagnogo says Snyder will need to make more effort to talk with — and listen to — Detroit lawmakers about how to best end the EAA, and the larger DPS restructuring, if he wants their votes.

But, “the handwriting’s on the wall, that we must stand firmly opposing anything that they have right now,” Gay-Dagnogo said. “Because you can’t even operate in good faith on something [the EAA] you know is broke. And you broke it.”

John Austin, president of the state board of education, said that the EAA had become so “toxic” that “everybody was looking for a way to put it out of its misery.”

Austin says that’s a shame, because he believes the state does need a “turnaround strategy” for its lowest-performing schools.

Austin thinks any DPS rescue package needs to include a “quality control” mechanism to govern the entire Detroit education landscape, which now includes about as many charter as traditional public schools. The current bills do not include any means of charter oversight or broader school coordination.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan is among those pushing for something like a Detroit Education Commission to govern that larger landscape. But city leaders as a whole are divided over that, along with larger issues of how and when to restore power to a local elected school board.

Austin says that at the very least, the EAA’s demise illustrates that Lansing should abandon its current “emergency management mentality” when it comes to school turnaround efforts.

“The idea that, ‘We know best, and we can balance the books when you can’t — that doesn’t educate kids better,” Austin said. “And the EAA was just another example of that.”