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School Reform Officer Natasha Baker defends delayed plans to close as many as 38 Michigan schools

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Lansing – A delayed plan to close up to 38 chronically struggling Michigan schools – many in Detroit and other high-poverty areas — would leave parents on their own to figure out how to get their children to recommended alternatives, some as far as 30 miles away.

School Reform Officer Natasha Baker defended the controversial plan Thursday in testimony before a Michigan House panel, saying the state alerted parents in January to give them time to consider higher quality options for next school year. But it has not developed any transportation plan for students who could be forced out of their local school.

“It was their right to know, and that’s why we pushed to make sure they had options,” Baker said. “Now, were they far away? Is it difficult? Yes. But when you’re poor, and I know this for a fact, life is harder. You have to go the extra mile.”

Baker, who told legislators she personally grew up in poverty, said the School Reform Office was simply following the law when it identified 38 schools that could be slated for closure, including 24 in Detroit. But state legislators will have to decide whether they want to revisit other laws governing public school busing and optional schools of choice policies.

The state’s $617 million bailout of Detroit Public Schools last year generally required closure of city schools that fell in the bottom five percent for statewide academic performance three straight years, and the School Reform Office expanded the directive to consider all struggling schools in Michigan.

Nine of the schools identified for possible closure have been flagged for poor academic performance for more than a decade. Denby, Ford, Mumford, Pershing and Southeastern high schools in Detroit — all moved into a turnaround district created by Gov. Rick Snyder in 2011 — have been identified as priority schools for up to 16 years.

“If you’re a high school and you were identified for 16 years, that means every kid you graduate is struggling in all subject content areas, most likely,” Baker said. “The SRO was charged with doing something about that. It wasn’t an egregious act .We just care about kids and want them to have options when they graduate high school.”

Snyder last week delayed any school closure decisions until May, calling in the Michigan Department of Education to work with the School Reform Office for further discussion and coordination with local superintendents and districts.

Baker said the School Reform Office has completed its “hardship review” of the 38 schools targeted for “the next steps of accountability,” which included a review of geography, performance and enrollment capacity in alternative schools within a 30-mile radius. She declined to say how many schools the office is recommending for closure.

Transportation options

Transportation concerns have emerged as a key sticking point in the debate over school closures. Critics say it would be unfair to close schools in low-income communities without providing clear directions and assistance for students to get to better schools.

“I don’t see how you give choices to parents and kids that kids can’t get to,” said Rep. Adam Zemke, D-Ann Arbor. “That makes absolutely no sense. Anybody with half a brain realizes that.”

Baker said the School Reform Office identified alternatives within a 30-mile radius to ensure access. In some instances, she explained, there were higher-quality options closer by in public districts that do not allow outside enrollment under the state’s optional schools of choice law.

State Rep. Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit, questioned whether the School Reform Office had talked directly with officials at neighboring districts that do allow outside enrollment to ensure they could absorb a large number of new students.

“I’m really concerned about this issue,” Chang said. “I think it is an issue of fairness, and it’s also just a practical concern of how physically we are getting kids to quality schools.”

Baker said transportation has come up in conversations with the governor’s office, the state Department of Education and other stakeholders, but she suggested Snyder told her “we’re not going in that direction.” She said school bus and transportation policies are better left to state legislators to change.

“I believe that kids need access to quality schools; I really don’t care how they get there,” she said. “But it is a conversation that is rooted in history that people are going to have to have soon if we’re talking about access to quality schools.”

The conversation is worth having now, said state Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Saginaw Township, chairman of the House Education Reform Committee, who requested recommendations from the School Reform Office but said he’s not sure how deeply the office should be involved in developing new policies.

“I’m prepared to find whatever we have to do, whether it’s a transportation voucher, bus pass, whatever, using Uber, all sorts of different public transportation, to get kids to better schools,” said Kelly, a charter and school choice advocate. “It’s something that I’m deeply interested in.”

District destabilization?

After Thursday’s hearing, Baker declined to say whether closure remain a realistic option for any of the 38 schools her office identified. Her team is now working with the state education department before finalizing plans.

“Our recommendations are in that conversation,” she said. “I believe our goal here is not closure; our goal is access to quality schools. It’s really important Michigan has that dialogue.”

Regardless of how many Detroit schools are ultimately closed, state warnings have “destabilized” the district and will drive down enrollment next year, said school board member LaMar Lemmons.

“By sending out that letter, both teachers and parents are now frantically looking for where they’re going to send their children in the fall, and do they need to move, including moving out of the city and to a community that is more stable,” Lemmons said.

The Detroit Public Schools Community District board voted last month to hire the Miller Canfield law firm in advance of possible legal action against state-forced closures.

Lemmons called Baker “totally incompetent” and told reporters he feels the same way about Snyder, who moved the School Reform Office into the executive branch in 2015. “Probably especially the governor, because ultimately the buck stops there,” he said.

Parents will not find out the fate of their children’s school until at least May. Baker defended the early warning, although she admitted the letters sent out by her office were “imperfect.”

“The SRO was just in a position to be honest, and we did that,” she said. “Sometimes that doesn’t feel so good, but we did it in the spirit of providing access to quality schools.”

joosting@detroitnews.com

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