Expansion of school turnaround district stalled

 Some say it is too early to know whether fledgling state authority is working

By David Eggert
Associated Press

LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Despite a renewed push, expansion of a state turnaround entity for failing public schools beyond Detroit remains in trouble in the Legislature, where some majority Republicans still have concerns about a top initiative for Gov. Rick Snyder.

They say it’s too early to know whether the fledgling 15-school Education Achievement Authority is working. Others contend a new version of legislation floated last week doesn’t guarantee a role for county intermediate school districts to step in and run the worst schools instead.

Some Republicans, after recently meeting with EAA teachers, echo Democrats who wonder if they’re too constrained in their ability to engage with students.

“My local ISDs are not in favor of it, my local superintendents are not in favor of it, Grand Rapids Public Schools are not in favor of it,” said Rep. Thomas Hooker, R-Byron Center, who was a teacher for 37 years.

He supported the bill when it narrowly cleared the GOP-led House 11 months ago, before it saw significant changes in the Republican-controlled Senate. So far he’s against the compromise being proposed by leaders of the House and Senate education committees.

“It’s a concept that although is good on paper has a hard time getting a foothold,” said Rep. Peter Pettalia, R-Presque Isle. “I don’t think the EAA is doing all that we want it to do.”

Under a 2009 law signed by then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm, the lowest-achieving bottom 5 percent of public schools — 137 at last check — can be placed into a state school reform/redesign district if their “redesign” plan isn’t achieving satisfactory results. Michigan’s school reform officer can impose one of four intervention models and, to some extent, amend teacher union contracts.

After Snyder took office in 2011, the state transferred the turnaround district to the EAA, a new Snyder-backed school system that was formed through an agreement between Detroit schools’ emergency manager and Eastern Michigan University. The 15 EAA schools opened last academic year and have longer days, 500 more hours of class annually than usual, no grade levels and instruction tailored to individual students.

“If you talk to teachers and students in these schools, you’ll see there’s real learning going on,” Snyder said. “These were schools that had a terrible track record for learning that’s dramatically improved.”

For 16 months, however, the Republican governor and his allies have had trouble codifying the school system into law.

It’s partly an attempt to better define the state’s role in the “restart” model, when a low-achieving school is converted or closed and reopened under a new operating entity outside a financial emergency situation like in Detroit. Though state Superintendent Mike Flanagan has threatened to move more schools into the turnaround district on his own, he prefers that legislation be passed.

The latest version circulating in the Capitol would allow no more than 50 schools in the statewide district at any time, put a priority on intervening in K-8 schools and prohibit new schools from being added until the 2015-16 academic year. Schools in the bottom 5 percent can be found in Jackson, Battle Creek, Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids, Lansing, suburban Detroit and elsewhere.

The bill also would permit intermediate school districts to manage schools, though critics call the provision illusory because turnaround functions were given to the EAA for 15 years. Empowering the county-level districts is key for some House Republicans in particular who reason local interventions are better than state takeovers, while some legislators question if ISDs are equipped to take them over if needed.

On one side of the debate are those — including philanthropists and foundations that have contributed tens of millions of dollars to help get the EAA off the ground —who support doing something more innovative for students trapped in failing schools that have been ignored too long. On the other side are Democrats, school boards and superintendents who contend the EAA model is unproven, losing enrollment, has high staff turnover and lacks transparency.

Backers say students are faring better and learning at a faster clip than before, while critics question the integrity of the test results. Opponents also say the bill no longer promises how schools can exit the EAA if they improve.

“The EAA is disastrous, and to even think of expanding it is unconscionable,” said Rep. Ellen Cogen Lipton, D-Huntington Woods.

Senate Education Committee Chairman Phil Pavlov, R-St. Clair, acknowledged the EAA doesn’t have a long track record but said it should be remembered that the schools had struggled for years.

“We have to help these kids who are stuck in failing school buildings,” he said. “The whole focus has been around the bureaucracy of who’s going to turn it around. ... We can’t get caught up on who’s doing it. We need to be focused on getting it done.”