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Will Gov. Snyder's latest move on failing schools help?

Mar 13, 2015

The education community was all a-flutter yesterday over the news that Governor Snyder had moved the school reform office from the Department of Education, which he doesn’t control, to the Department of Technology, Management and Budget, which he does.

That may not sound like the most exciting development in the history of American government, but it is significant in this sense. This is the office that oversees the state’s worst-performing schools. 

Basically, the governor is saying he doesn’t have any confidence in the education department’s ability to fix them, and so he is going to take charge.

"Improving our schools is a Michigan priority, regardless of where you live," the governor said.

“Kids in chronically failing schools are at significant risk,” he said, adding, “we must ensure that all schools are meeting high standards so that our children are on the right path for success and quality of life.” 

Well, it’s impossible to argue with that.

Nor can anyone say that the present system is working.

The only question worth asking is: Does what the governor is doing make sense? And will it make the schools work better?

Unfortunately, it does seem that the Department of Education has been failing to adequately make school reform work.

But there isn’t a lot of evidence that the governor can do it any better. You have only to look at his signature program, the Education Achievement Authority for failing Detroit schools, which yesterday was described as having “mixed” results.

In fact, that’s probably too kind.

Most reaction to the governor’s move fell along predictable lines. The charter school people loved it. John Austin, the normally mild-mannered president of the State Board of Education, hated it.  In fact, he called this -- “unfortunate and counterproductive.”

The board is in the process of picking a new state superintendent to replace the retiring Mike Flanagan, and Austin said the mere threat that the governor might do this caused a couple high-powered candidates to drop out.

And Austin also raised this legitimate question: Can moving the reform office to a state agency with no educational abilities or mandate be a good thing?

However, even the school board president said he shared the governor’s impatience with the pace of reform.

And the governor did find some support from one unusual ally: Democrat Tom Watkins, who was state schools superintendent when Jennifer Granholm was governor.

Watkins paraphrased what Franklin D. Roosevelt said during the Great Depression:

“Do something. And if that does not work, do something else, but for God’s sake, do something!”

Watkins told me, “we have schools and a society that have been failing kids for generation, and little or nothing changes. When there is an alignment and focus on doing right by kids, good things happen.”

What he fears is that our focus will now be on "power, control, politics and adults, not teaching, learning and children."

I think he’s right about that.

But my fear is that all of this may be just rearranging the deck chairs. Unless children have a home that encourages learning it may not matter who their teachers are, or what the curriculum is. And I don’t know what Rick Snyder or John Austin or, indeed, anyone can do about that.

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.