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Michigan's school closing fiasco

Feb 17, 2017

Well, it’s Friday, and I thought I’d mark the end of the week with a particularly absurd joke.

Did you know there is something in Lansing called the School Reform Office which can actually close down failing public schools. Get it?

Well, there is, in fact, something named that. And, for the second year in a row, it indicated it was thinking about closing a group of schools statewide, only to have to beat a hasty retreat and say the equivalent of “Ah, just kidding, we really didn’t mean it.”

Naturally, they looked absurd, and one of the governor’s top advisors made a total fool of himself. If you’ve been following this story carefully, you likely know that.

You also know that in the end, odds are that no schools at all will be closed. But what’s being largely ignored is this: Keeping the schools open doesn’t do anything to solve the dreadful education problems many places face. Closing them wouldn’t have either.

And really, nothing will -- unless and until we really get serious about tackling education reform.

This year, the school closing saga started, perhaps appropriately, four weeks ago today, the same day another disruptive force took over in Washington.

On January 20, the School Reform Office announced that it had notified parents in 38 Michigan schools with terrible test scores that their schools may close. Each has a majority African-American student body. Twenty-five are in Detroit.

And the howls of protest immediately began.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan called the plan to close the schools “immoral, reckless and illegal,” and vowed to stop it.

Crain’s Detroit Business did a story about how closing the schools might cause economic risk to neighborhoods struggling to be viable, a view strongly backed by Sandy Baruah, the head of the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce.

Rich Baird, possibly Governor Rick Snyder’s chief advisor, showed up at a meeting in Detroit, where he promptly qualified for a lifetime achievement award in Orwellian doublespeak. Part of what he said was:

“We have to think about closure in terms of closing out failure. Not closing out buildings and not closing out effective educational offerings.”

The proper intellectual response to that would be, “huh?”

Natasha Baker, the head of the School Reform Office, wasn’t there. Nor has she been very visible since the controversy. Instead, we had a top aide to the governor appearing to say that announcing a school is going to close really just means the state wants it to get better.

Here’s what’s really going on.

Last year, when the Detroit public schools were bailed out of bankruptcy, Governor Snyder wanted to give Mayor Duggan the right to say where any new school supported by public money could open. This was blocked by lobbyists for the charter schools, who want no restraints whatsoever on their activities.

They are cannibalizing education in Detroit, and hurting some traditional schools.

They are cannibalizing education in Detroit, and hurting some traditional schools. The schools on the closing list do indeed have abysmal test scores. But they serve many families who have little access to transportation. How are they to get their kids somewhere better?

We indeed have a serious, complex problem. What we haven’t had, so far, is a serious will to try and fix it. And unless we do, our future is essentially doomed.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior 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.