Education
10:39 am
Thu March 27, 2014

Education Achievement Authority still faces uphill fight

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Gov. Snyder read to schoolkids during a tour of Detroit schools last year. Duncan called the EAA "the future of education."
Credit Jake Neher / MPRN

The state Legislature could soon give Gov. Snyder something he’s wanted for a long time: a bill that would clear the way for the controversial Education Achievement Authority to expand.

The Senate is now considering a bill passed by the House that would, among other things, allow the EAA to expand beyond Detroit. The state-run district for the lowest-performing schools is the governor’s signature education initiative.

But as we’ll examine here in the first of a two-part series, the EAA’s persistent troubles have also made it one of Snyder’s biggest headaches.

“I will never rest until this thing is over”

You don’t have to dig too deep to find the tension and controversy that has plagued the Education Achievement Authority.

Brooke Harris spoke at the EAA’s last board meeting. The outspoken former English teacher at Detroit’s Mumford High School was fired last year, allegedly for sparking a student protest.

Harris denies that, and she continues to publicly criticize the EAA. She read aloud from a series of blistering letters from Mumford students, like this one.

“I would NEVER – and that’s underlined, capitalized – suggest somebody  send their children here,” Harris read, as Chancellor John Covington and EAA officials looked on. “I will not graduate from here. I CANNOT have Mumford High School’s name on my diploma.”

Former Detroit public school teacher Sherry Gay-Dagnogo didn’t mince words, either. She called the EAA a “crashing train” driven by “ego and profit.”

“And I will never rest until this thing is over. Shut the EAA down!” Dagnogo shouted, her passion evoking cheers from a largely supportive crowd at the public hearing.

The board silently withstood these verbal assaults. But generally, district officials say their critics are part of a vocal minority who opposed the EAA before it even got started. And to some extent, they have a point.

But for a school system that’s not even two years old, the EAA has stirred up a lot of passion, controversy and anger – none of which are going away.

From “turnaround district” to political target

It all started when Gov. Snyder first announced the EAA in 2011. He pitched it as a state-run turnaround district – a whole new system where the state’s worst schools would get special attention. Snyder said EAA schools would get lots of support, but also plenty of autonomy to experiment with new ways of learning and teaching.

John Austin, a Democrat and president of the State Board of Education, had long stressed the need for a school turnaround strategy in Michigan. So he initially welcomed Snyder’s plan.

“I was not unhappy when the governor said “We’re going to be serious. We’re going to create an Education Achievement Authority,” Austin said.

But in Austin’s view, the missteps started right away. First, rather than bringing in a diverse group of school operators with proven turnaround track records to manage “a portfolio of schools,” the EAA brought in Chancellor John Covington and his hand-picked team. Covington had been the superintendent of Kansas City Public Schools, and the EAA chose to directly manage most of its 15 initial schools.

Second, all of those 15 schools were former Detroit public schools. The idea was to start small, but DPS has experienced various forms of state intervention for more than a decade – and launching only in Detroit fed preexisting perceptions that the state was out to dismantle DPS.

But Austin said the third and biggest blunder happened in Lansing. Republicans introduced a bill to formalize the EAA’s status in law during the 2012 lame duck session.

Austin said that EAA bill had a lot of “ornaments” that seemingly had more do with making public school assets available to new school operators, rather than creating a real turnaround district. And it was tied to other school finance bills that seemed to pave the way for an increasingly privatized, unregulated, for-profit public school “marketplace.”

That sparked a major outcry from all over the state, and the bills never passed – dooming the EAA in the process.

“It became THE target, because it was one of the pieces of legislation that was part of this new free market of new schools and private schools creation,” Austin said. "It was part of this big effort to open up a lot of new schools without any quality control, and without any strategy for how this would all improve education achievement.

"And that really made a mess, because it got tied up in the politics and the backlash against the whole free-market, open-the-door-to-any-and-all-vendors system that was being proposed.”

Snyder: EAA is working

Which brings us to current events in Lansing. After multiple attempts, House Republicans managed to cobble together enough votes to push a new bill through. This new legislation would finally firm up state policy options for turnaround districts and schools. Among other provisions, it includes the possibility of expanding the EAA to 50 schools statewide.

Austin said he wouldn’t call today’s EAA a “failed experiment”– but it’s also “not looking too good after two years.” And he says there’s no way we should expand a system that hasn’t proven itself yet.

As for Gov. Snyder, he’s consistently dismissed the EAA’s problems as relatively minor growing pains. He insists this is all about making sure Michigan’s most vulnerable kids get a real education – and it’s already working.

“They’ve made tremendous growth,” Snyder said. “You have to put it in perspective: These were some of the most persistently failing schools in our state, and now student growth is happening.”

While there’s some evidence for that claim, there’s also a lot of data suggesting major systemic problems in the current EAA. We’ll explore some of them – with people who’ve seen the seen the system from the inside – in part two of this series.