State schools superintendent exits with pride, regrets

Shawn D. Lewis
The Detroit News

State school Superintendent Mike Flanagan can breathe a sigh of relief when he leaves office Tuesday after a decade as Michigan’s top education official.

He departs on his own terms, retiring in favor of Dearborn school superintendent Brian Whiston, chosen in March by the State Board of Education.

“I kept waiting to get fired,” Flanagan, 65, said in an interview with The Detroit News Editorial Board. “Ten years is too long. It’s a very hard job to even try to do right.”

Some debate whether the job was done right, pointing to persistent financial and academic problems in many of the state’s public school districts and below-average graduation rates.

“He is probably disappointed with the slow progress toward increased student learning, especially in high-poverty districts,” said Bob Floden, director of the Institute for Research on Teaching and Learning at Michigan State University.

As Flanagan leaves, uncertainty hangs over the state’s largest school district, Detroit Public Schools. Beset by persistent deficits, falling enrollment and low test scores, DPS has been under state control for more than half of his tenure, since 2009.

It’s one of more than 50 districts on the state’s deficit watch list, caught between rising expenses and declining state aid.

Another state-run district, the Education Achievement Authority, has battled low enrollment and financial issues since opening in 15 former DPS schools three years ago.

Michigan’s high school graduation rate trails the national average — 81 percent — despite rising from 75 percent in 2006-07 to 78.6 percent in 2013-14.

Flanagan’s own assessment of the state of education in Michigan: “It’s still desperate. There’s a lot of kids who still aren’t making it.”

Still, the retiring superintendent and other education leaders in Michigan say he can point to real achievements.

They include the Michigan Merit Curriculum, with its more rigorous academic standards and tougher high school graduation requirements. The program began in the first year of his tenure in 2005-06.

Flanagan also points to the state’s dropout rate, which fell from 14 percent in 2006-07 to 9.6 percent last year, and gains in third-grade reading. Proficiency on the Michigan Educational Assessment Program rose from 63.5 percent in 2010 to 70 percent in 2013.

“The tests that we value, and our teachers value, we do better on over the past five years,” he said.

In April, Flanagan removed 27 schools from the state’s “priority status” list, saying they had made enough academic improvement to lift them out of the bottom 5 percent.

Floden said Flanagan’s legacy will include “recalibrating state test results to honestly reflect whether students are college and career ready, and taking first steps toward stricter oversight of charter school authorizers.”

Flanagan angered charter school advocates last August when he put 11 Michigan authorizers on an “at-risk of suspension” list, saying they fell short on oversight. Seven of the charter authorizers have since been taken off the list

Flanagan also called in March for a moratorium on new charter schools in Detroit and other troubled districts to help stabilize enrollment. “There’s plenty of charters right now,” he told The News.

Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, criticized Flanagan last year over the threatened suspensions, calling his action “a finger in the eye of the Legislature and the governor.”

But asked this month to assess Flanagan’s work, Quisenberry praised him as a dedicated educator committed to helping at-risk students.

“I know from talking to Mike he wanted to move the education discussion in Michigan to how can we better meet the challenges of overcoming poverty, high outcomes for all kids,” he said.

Before taking office in 2005, Flanagan was superintendent of the Wayne Regional Educational Service Agency and superintendent of the Farmington School District. He also was executive director of the Michigan Association of School Administrators.

“Mike brought a true passion for pubic education, a sincere belief that every child deserves a quality education, to his post as state Superintendent,” said David Hecker, president of the American Federation of Teachers Michigan. “And an absolute acknowledgment that there is much work to be done to achieve this outcome.”

Flanagan agrees there are some items on his “to do” list that remain unresolved.

He expressed frustration that he leaves office without a permanent replacement for the MEAP as Michigan’s standardized achievement exam.

Last summer, state lawmakers canceled Smarter Balanced, an online test scheduled to be introduced in spring 2015, and ordered state education officials to develop a substitute test.

Because of that, Flanagan said, students face three different exams in three school years — the final MEAP in fall 2013, the interim M-STEP exam given this spring and a permanent assessment to be developed and given starting in spring 2016.

“We worked on a test for three years, and the rug’s pulled out from under us,” he said. “Three different tests, three different years. It’s nuts.”

Smarter Balanced is aligned to the Common Core State Standards, and Floden said the superintendent may have underestimated the resistance to the new standards.

Flanagan, who took office under former Gov. Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat, acknowledges some disagreements with Republican Gov. Rick Snyder.

He objected to the governor’s decision this spring to move the State School Reform Office from the Department of Education to his direct control. “I would have preferred it to stay in the department,” Flanagan said.

But he applauds Snyder’s initiative to expand preschool for low-income children and said the governor is making a good-faith effort to revive Detroit schools.

“I trust him ... I think he’s trying,” Flanagan said.

The Detroit Board of Education has been largely sidelined under a series of state-appointed emergency managers. Board president Herman Davis said he’s disappointed Flanagan hasn’t advocated more strongly for local school control.