Michigan parents: Parent proposal for school improvement better than state takeover

By Steven Norton, PAA Board of Directors member and head of PAA affiliate Michigan Parents for Schools

After a bruising vote in the House, the Michigan Senate is slated to take up the latest version of HB 4369, the state school takeover bill. Most people, including us, have been calling this the “EAA bill,” but that’s a misnomer. The latest version of the bill doesn’t even mention the Education Achievement Authority by name, though it would allow the EAA to continue operating and even expand.

What the bill does do, however, is to cement in place a state school takeover system originally rushed into law over four years ago in a desperate attempt to win a share of Federal “race to the top” funding. (We didn’t get any.) At the time, everyone agreed that the provisions being rushed into law were less than half-baked, and lawmakers promised to re-visit the provisions and replace them with sound policy. Naturally, that never happened.

Current law allows the state government to take over an individual school – lock, stock and barrel – if its test scores place it in the bottom 5% of all schools. Schools are given a chance to dig themselves out, if they can, but after that the State will come in and save the day. The bill now in the Senate strengthens those provisions and lets the state hand schools over to other organizations, including charter school networks.

But the EAA is still an important part of this story, mainly because of the lessons it – and other examples of state intervention – should have taught us about what happens under state takeover. What are some of those lessons?

1) Beware people who have “The Answer” without actually looking at the problem.

State officials wanted easy solutions and a quick “win.” EAA Chancellor John Covington and his team came to Michigan with an idea about using computers instead of teachers to let every student “progress at their own pace.” They called this “student centered,” but it’s really software-centered. They promised miracles by the end of the first semester, and then they told us everything was working great.

We should have looked more closely at Kansas City, which lost its state accreditation just after Dr. Covington and his team fled to Michigan. He tried his “answer” there, too.

Instead, we now learn of chaos in schools, huge teacher turnover, computers that don’t work, an online “learning platform” with no content, and a corrosive school environment in which fingers were being pointed in all directions when things did not work as advertised. Second year MEAP scores show that students who stayed in the EAA actually did worse, on average, than students in Detroit Public Schools. “The Answer” collided with reality, and lost, but EAA officials have been unwilling to admit that. Children have been paying the price.

2) When schools answer to Lansing but not the local community, you have a disaster waiting to happen.

When you lose local accountability, you also lose a reality check. The appearance of success becomes more important than actual success, and everyone in the system is made to understand whose opinions really matter. And it’s not the parents or the community.

Perhaps the most startling aspect of the EAA was its “Potemkin village” quality: their skill at putting on a good show for visiting state officials and private funders that masked the reality of EAA schools. Detailed contingency plans were developed to clear hallways and lock down classrooms with the most troublesome students. Both teachers and students were given scripts on how to respond to questions, and anyone who did not cooperate earned the wrath of administrators.

In fact, we are told, this got so bad that even Dr. Covington himself could not trust his own administrators to tell him the truth. Apparently, he had keys made so that he could make surprise visits to his own schools.

This kind of twisted organizational culture leads to more serious problems: violations of state and federal laws on special education; possible abuse of students; intimidation of staff who try to serve or protect the children; and efforts to conceal problems rather than remedy them.

The EAA is not alone in this. Detroit Public Schools has been under effective state control for most of the last decade, yet it is hard to argue that they have dramatically improved the district. The emergency manager of Muskegon Heights public schools handed operational control of the district over to a for-profit charter management company. In the time since, they have had huge teacher turnover, been found in violation of a number of special education regulations, and most recently have been in such financial disarray that they could not make payroll.

We need a better alternative – and it’s ready to go

Do we really need more of this? Should the EAA expand to inflict its dysfunction on even more at-risk students? Should we have more examples of the state trying to make things better by making them cheaper? If this is “all about the kids,” why do the children seem to keep getting the short end of the stick?

What we need is something completely different. We need policy that actively works with local public schools, their elected officials, and their community to find and implement solutions that address their real needs. We need expert diagnosis of what may be wrong, and evidence-based proposals for how to improve struggling schools.

In short, we need the “Parent Proposal to Assist Struggling Schools,” embodied in HB 5268, now languishing in the House Education Committee. The takeover bill currently in the Senate allows lawmakers to make themselves look “forceful” and claim to have “taken care of business.” What we really need are effective systems to help our districts and communities in trouble repair their schools and rebuild their future. We have the proposal on the table; will our lawmakers have the courage to embrace it?

Posted on by Julie Woestehoff Posted in Misc

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