Lansing — The Michigan House narrowly passed legislation Thursday night expanding the reach of the Education Achievement Authority beyond the 15 Detroit schools the statewide school reform district operates.
The legislation targets schools that have been in the bottom 5 percent of academic performance for three or more years. The bill allows the reform district to add up to 35 schools over the next three years. According to the state's 2011-12 priority list, 144 schools would be eligible.
"Here's an opportunity to at least help these kids, because nobody else is," said Rep. Tom McMillin, R-Rochester Hills.
The Republican-controlled House passed the legislation 57-53 after hours of negotiations and last-minute amendments were tacked onto House Bill 4369 to get it passed before lawmakers adjourned for a two-week spring break. The bill now heads to the Senate.
The EAA was established in August 2011 as an interlocal government agreement between Detroit Public Schools and Eastern Michigan University. An amended version of the bill phases in the EAA's expansion, allowing a maximum of 50 schools after July 2015.
Critics say the bill rushes to expand the reach of the EAA before a year of credible testing data is available to see whether the reform district's intervention model leads to better student learning outcomes. Democrats argued the authority's six months operating the Detroit schools remains an untested "experiment."
"We have not taken the time to determine whether or not this … particular way of educating kids works," said Rep. David Nathan, D-Detroit. "If it does, I'll be the first one to say, 'Let's do it.'"
David Hecker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, added Friday that lawmakers "have the wrong priorities when it comes to public education"
"The EAA's limited history provides no evidence that being thrown into a state-run district is beneficial to schools," Hecker said. "In fact, the EAA's own data presented to the Legislature show that most of their students are falling further behind their peers this year -- why would we rush to expand this system?"
Gov. Rick Snyder has made expanding the EAA a top priority, billing it as a necessary tool to turn around schools whose students have chronically low test scores. The legislation stalled in December at the end of the last session.
"It's hard to understand why anyone would create in one fell swoop a district between the size of Utica and Detroit without any research," said Michael Rice, superintendent of Kalamazoo Public Schools.
Rep. Lisa Posthumus Lyons, chairwoman of the House Education Committee, said student attendance and parental involvement in Detroit EAA schools has "skyrocketed" and internal test results show students are learning more than they did under DPS.
"We have plenty, plenty of information to guarantee the status quo is failing," said Lyons, R-Alto.
The legislation contains some ways schools can escape an EAA takeover, subject to approval by the authority chancellor and a state school redesign officer using criteria that critics say could be subjective.
"It could easily lead to cherry picking," said Kathy Hayes, executive director of the Michigan Association of School Boards.
The bill also allows the EAA chancellor to terminate or modify collective bargaining contracts, according to an analysis from the nonpartisan House Fiscal Agency.
Although the EAA said it is subject to the state testing and the Freedom of Information Act, Democrats unsuccessfully attempted to tack on amendments to the bill specifying the reform district be held to the same legal requirements as traditional school districts and charter schools.
McMillin said Democrats resorted to "obfuscation and scare tactics" to try to derail the legislation. Lyons said the FOIA amendment was unnecessary.
Republican Reps. Jon Bumstead of Newaygo, Ben Glardon of Owosso and Peter Pettalia of Presque Isle joined 50 Democrats in voting "no" on the bill.
Detroit Rep. John Olumba, who recently dropped his Democratic Party affiliation and became an independent, chastised his former caucus members for looking out for unionized school employees before voting "yes" with the GOP majority.
"Children in failing schools need an opportunity for their schools to be shaken up and for their teachers to be woken up," Olumba said.