February 19, 2014 at 11:08 pm

Michigan cancels EAA's exclusive responsibility for state's failing schools

EAA Chancellor John Covington said districts will have more options for failing schools. (Steve Perez / The Detroit News)

State school superintendent Mike Flanagan has pulled the plug on the Education Achievement Authority’s 15-year contract to be the only operator of Michigan’s failing schools.

Flanagan’s action, detailed in a letter to EAA Chancellor John Covington on Tuesday, will greatly diminish the recovery district’s role in turning around Michigan’s failing K-12 schools. It comes as Gov. Rick Snyder and Republican lawmakers seek to expand the recovery district’s scope and size.

The move was interpreted differently by Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature. State Rep. Tom McMillin, R-Rochester Hills, said he is glad the EAA will no longer be the only choice for the state’s worst schools.

“I’m concerned about all our eggs in one basket. That (15-year) contract was one big concern. Now we can have a real conversation about how to get this done,” McMillin said.

McMillin was referring to an amended House bill that would make the EAA a freestanding school district with the authority to operate up to 50 academically troubled schools across the state.

The bill would prevent any schools from being ordered into the EAA until 2015, yet says schools may be placed in the system by their own local districts. It also says the EAA would have the authority to charter schools anywhere in the state and would establish it as the state reform district.

The bill has not come up for a vote, but McMillin said the EAA’s newly diminished role in reforming failing schools is encouraging.

“It was messy and now it becomes clear. There is nothing lurking behind the scenes now,” he said.

Rep. Lisa Posthumus Lyons, R-Alto, chairwoman of the House Education Committee, said Flanagan’s decision doesn’t change what she is trying to do with HB 4369, which she is sponsoring.

“This decision helps reinforce that we want multiple options to help failing schools,” she said.

But state Rep. Ellen Cogen Lipton, D-Huntington Woods, said the decision “signals a profound lack of confidence in the organization” used by the state to take over local schools. Lipton wants the entire EAA shut down and has proposed HB 5268, which provides for community-based reform efforts instead of handing schools over to the EAA.

Flanagan notified the EAA and Covington in a letter that the state was terminating contract language that gave the recovery district sole responsibility to take over the lowest-performing schools in Michigan through 2026.

“In our need to have options in which to place persistently low-achieving schools, in addition to the EAA, we need to end the exclusivity provision of the agreement between the EAA and the state,” Flanagan wrote.

In the letter, Flanagan said the EAA could still be an option for struggling schools. Flanagan also indicated he hoped he and Covington could mutually agree to the termination, but that Covington had failed to do so.

Flanagan wasn’t available for comment Wednesday.

“This is a year’s notice,” Flanagan wrote. “During that time, I am, of course, open to discussion of a future agreement that would facilitate this option.”

The EAA is in its second school year running 15 Detroit schools with persistently low academic achievement. Earlier this month, Snyder defended the EAA’s track record after speaking at a Michigan Farm Bureau event in Lansing.

Covington, who is under a four-year, $1.6 million contract with the state to run the EAA, said Wednesday that cancellation of the exclusivity clause does not spell the end of the EAA. Rather, he said, it allows Flanagan to pursue more options to turn around low-performing schools, such as allowing intermediate districts or charter schools to take over the state’s most troubled schools.

“We still plan to expand, but we have never planned on taking on 150 schools,” Covington said, referring to the estimated number of state schools among the lowest 5 percent academically.

Flanagan has the authority to cancel the contract himself, Covington acknowledged.

Snyder, who does not run the Education Department through a constitutional separation of powers, had little comment Wednesday about the department’s actions following a luncheon in Detroit. “I’ll have to take a look at that,” Snyder told reporters. “That is something I just heard about today.”

Dave Murray, a spokesman for Snyder, said the governor agrees with Flanagan’s decision.

“People are misunderstanding this. They think it’s a negative thing. What Mike Flanagan is saying and we agree with is that he would like the flexibility to include ISD and chartering groups for these failing schools. The governor supports a variety of approaches and we wholeheartedly support this,” Murray said.

The governor’s spokesman said Flanagan has been working with education leadership on the matter, but not the governor directly. “This wasn’t sprung on people,” Murray said.

Snyder’s office created the EAA in 2011 through an interlocal agreement between Detroit Public Schools and Eastern Michigan University to serve as the state’s school reform district. Critics say a 2009 education reform law was supposed to establish such a district, but it never materialized.

The state’s school reform/redesign office, established by the 2009 law, entered into the 15-year contract with the EAA to transfer its responsibilities to oversee failing schools.

Ray Telman, executive director of the Middle Cities Education Association, a consortium of urban school districts, applauded Flanagan’s decision but wants the change to occur faster.

“Why does it have to take a year? If we want more options, perhaps we should do this sooner. It is a good idea to have more options to be closer to the community,” Telman said.

Telman acknowledged the EAA is still in its start-up years, but its high staff turnover and its nearly 24 percent enrollment drop this school year remain a concern for him and many education advocates.

“I know this about schools in general — you have to have stability,” he said.

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Chad Livengood contributed.