Congressional Dems to Snyder: Stop school closures

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Michigan U.S. House Democrats are calling on Republican Gov. Rick Snyder to halt plans to potentially close some of the state’s 38 worst-performing schools by this summer, arguing for additional community dialogue before any closures.

“The state must stop looking at children as numbers on a spreadsheet and provide struggling schools with the funding to escape the cycle of low performance,” said a Tuesday letter signed by U.S. Reps. Dan Kildee of Flint Township, Sander Levin of Royal Oak, Brenda Lawrence of Southfield, John Conyers of Detroit and Debbie Dingell of Dearborn.

“These closings are a short-sighted measure that will have detrimental impacts on students, families and communities.”

The Michigan School Reform Office last month released its latest round of top-to-bottom school rankings, including a list of schools that fall in the bottom five percent of the state for academic performance.

The Snyder administration is considering plans to close 38 schools that made the priority list at least three straight years, including a handful of schools that have been flagged for poor academic performance 15 years running.

The list includes 24 of 119 public schools in Detroit, meaning more than a third of Detroit schools could potentially be shuttered.

The School Reform Office alerted parents with students in those schools last month, informing them of the potential closure and alternative schools, but is currently conducting “hardship” reviews to determine which buildings it will ultimately close.

“We ask that you ensure these schools are not closed without consultation and support from the local community,” said the letter from Congressional Democrats.

Snyder spokeswoman Anna Heaton said the School Reform Office already is consulting with districts, students and the Michigan Department of Education as it conducts a full review of each school before any final closure decisions are made.

“Some of the schools on the list of 38 have been under-performing for a decade or more, so it’s imperative that some action is taken to save these kids from classrooms where they simply are not receiving an adequate education,” Heaton said.

“While funding alone is not proven to be an answer for performance, it should be noted that Gov. Snyder has continually increased K-12 funding each year, and if his FY18 recommendation is implemented by the Legislature, it will bring Michigan K-12 schools to an historic investment of $12.3 billion annually.”

State-specific funding for K-12 schools has risen each year since Snyder took office in 2011, but he did approve a per-pupil funding cut in his first budget, partially due to reduced federal funding. State allowances have increased each year since.

The School Reform Office, which Snyder moved under his authority in 2015, has come under fire since announcing the potential closures last month. Parents, students and educators have questioned both the process and policy.

State Sen. Phil Pavlov, R-St. Clair Township, has proposed repealing Michigan’s so-called “failing schools” law and is studying possible replacements.

The Democratic Congressional delegation, in their letter to Snyder, argued the closure plan runs counter to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which require states to work collaboratively with local school districts.

“Closing a school forces kids to attend a school outside their community, creating many problems for both students and parents,” they wrote, noting that in at least one instance, the School Reform Office told a River Rouge parent to consider new schools as far as 45 miles away.

“This would create incredible burdens on working parents and students, especially those who depend on public transportation to attend schools.”

The Snyder administration has been working to calm fears about the potential school closures, noting that ongoing hardship reviews mean schools that made the initial list will not necessarily be shuttered.

“There is no way in the world that 38 schools are going to be closed,” top Snyder aide Rich Baird said last week in a Detroit town hall meeting.

“We have to think about closure in terms of closing out failure, not closing out buildings, and not closing out effective educational offerings,” he said.