Senate chair: Michigan ‘failing schools’ law a failure
Lansing — The chairman of the Michigan Senate Education Committee is calling for the repeal of the state’s “failing schools” law even as Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration finalizes plans to shut down some chronically underperforming schools.
Academic failure “must not be tolerated,” Sen. Phil Pavlov, R-St. Clair Township, said Tuesday, but the current process for addressing the failures is “deeply flawed” and has caused “great anxiety” for education officials across the state.
Pavlov plans to introduce a repeal bill when legislators return to the Capitol on Wednesday, the first day of the new two-year session, and begin a public conversation over a potential replacement law.
In the meantime, the School Reform Office should “absolutely” hold off on closing any academically struggling schools, said Oakland Schools Superintendent Wanda Cook-Robinson. The state is expected to finalize its closure list in the next few months but won’t specify when.
“I really think Sen. Pavlov is on the right track, and I would like to see it delayed until that discussion is held,” Cook-Robinson said.
Pavlov stopped short of recommending the Snyder administration stop any planned closures, saying he wants the governor’s office to be a “partner” in developing a replacement. But he told The Detroit News the law has created “confusion among all the parties that are administering this, including the school districts.”
“We heard an announcement last August that up to 100 schools could be closed,” Pavlov said. “Well, what is the process and how do you get to that point? I’m not interested in protecting schools that can’t deliver, but we have to have something everybody understands, metrics people can work toward for achievement and not be subject to on-the-spot discretion.”
Developed in an attempt to qualify for more federal funding under the since-replaced No Child Left Behind Act, the Michigan law created a process allowing the state to close schools that perform among the state’s bottom 5 percent. Alternatively, the state can mandate another form of intervention, such as the appointment of a chief executive officer.
Detroit’s closure exception
Last year’s $617 million bailout of Detroit’s public school system requires the School Reform Office to force closure of any city schools that make the list three years running unless it would “result in unreasonable hardship to the pupils.”
Of the 124 schools that fell in the bottom 5 percent for academic performance last year, 47 were public schools in Detroit.
The Michigan Department of Education will release a new top-to-bottom list of academic performance by the end of January. School Reform Officer Natasha Baker will then lead a review of the bottom 5 percent of schools, and “further announcements will be forthcoming,” spokesman Kurt Weiss said Tuesday.
As for the repeal legislation, the Snyder administration knows the current law “has its challenges and needs to be looked at again, and we look forward to working with the Legislature on their thoughts around improving the language,” Weiss said.
Pavlov said the “goal posts” for struggling schools have too often moved under existing law, which was developed under what he called a “heavy-handed” federal education policy that has changed considerably in recent years.
At the same time, Michigan has adopted a new standardized test for students. Pavlov said the School Reform Office has used multiple “accountability measurement systems” for schools that land on the lowest-performing list.
“These districts don’t know how the data is going to be used, and so it’s creating a lot of confusion,” he said.
A ‘more rational’ law?
The Detroit-area Tri-County Alliance for Public Education praised Pavlov for introducing a “common-sense repeal” of the failing schools law, arguing it had “largely led to a confusing and irrational bureaucracy of red tape, with no demonstrable successes.”
“We look forward to working with Sen. Pavlov and his colleagues on a more rational law that uses research-based, rather than experimental, approaches to school improvement and allows parents and communities to continue being involved in their schools,” said Executive Director Mark Burton, whose group includes superintendents from every district in Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties.
Cook-Robinson suggested that intermediate school districts like hers could provide a potential alternative to state school takeover models, stepping in to help chronically struggling schools in a more collaborative fashion.
“We can come together and be that entity that helps,” she said. “We’re closer to home. We’re closer to the districts, and we’re right there.”
Help from the county intermediate school districts could be considered, said Pavlov, adding he may propose an “early warning” academic system to identify struggling districts before they require a state takeover. It would build off an early warning financial system the Legislature approved in 2015.
Gary Naeyaert of the Great Lakes Education Project said a new statewide school accountability system could help “streamline this process and maybe remove some of the ambiguity that has led to some of the dysfunction.”
But he stressed the importance of developing a new law “with teeth” before repealing the old version.
“We are not going to take a holiday from accountability under any circumstance,” said Naeyaert, whose group pushed for stricter accountability measures in the Detroit schools bailout and supports creating more school choices for parents.
State Superintendent Brian Whiston said last month he is developing his own “partnership model” to help public schools avoid state intervention by encouraging collaborations with government agencies, the business community and foundations.
As for this year, “I don’t think there will be a lot of closures,” Whiston said. “I think there could be appointments of some CEOs and some closures, as the Detroit legislation would call for.”