Snyder reverses self with School Reform Office move

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder on Friday reversed his 2-year-old decision to move the School Reform Office under an agency he directly controls, signing an executive order to return it to the Department of Education.

The School Reform Office is tasked with monitoring the state’s lowest academically performing schools and came under fire earlier this year after rolling out a plan to force potential closures of up to 38 struggling Michigan schools. But the Snyder administration credited it with “jump-starting a stalled program” to address chronically failing schools.

The Republican governor had shifted the School Reform Office to the Department of Technology, Management and Budget in March 2015. On Friday, he returned the office to the education department, which is run by state Superintendent Brian Whiston, who was elected by the then-Democratically control school board in July 2015.

Whiston has a solid working relationship with Snyder, and this year, he worked with the School Reform Office to develop a “partnership agreement” model allowing districts to avoid forced school closures if they agreed to turnaround plans.

“Improving our schools and holding them accountable for their performance is critical to Michigan students’ success,” Snyder said in a statement.

“Under the leadership and commitment of (School Reform Officer) Natasha Baker and State Superintendent Brian Whiston, the School Reform Office has done great work to establish policies and procedures that promote sustainable and positive student outcomes. Moving the office back to MDE will ensure the efficient continuation of those efforts.”

The Department of Education this spring finalized a partnership agreement with nine districts with the lowest-performing schools, including up to 24 in Detroit, as identified by the School Reform Office.

The agreements will allow the districts to keep those schools open for at least three more years as they work toward improvements though partnerships with local universities, unions, businesses and community leaders.

In identifying potential closures in January, the School Reform Office said it had released 79 other schools from its “priority” list because of academic improvements.

“We welcome back the School Reform Office to stay aligned in improving the lowest achieving schools and strengthening the partnership model we have established with struggling districts,” Whiston said in a statement.

Referencing a department goal established in 2015, he added: “Lifting all students to higher levels of achievement will help Michigan become a Top 10 education state in 10 years.”

Snyder spokesman Ari Adler disputed any suggestion that Snyder reversed himself by moving the School Reform Office back under the education department.

“It has been two successful years of jump-starting a stalled program, and we are now handing it off to a new state superintendent who is a good partner willing to keep the momentum going,” he said. “That's hardly ‘reversing’ a position.”

The Great Lakes Education Project, which has advocated for closing struggling schools, said it shouldn’t matter where the reform office is located so far as “someone, anyone would use the authority in existing law to save kids in failing schools.”

“Sadly, we’ve not thus far seen the courage to exercise the real accountability and achieve the real change too many kids so desperately need,” GLEP advocacy director Beth DeShone said in a statement.

Michigan students continually made the least improvement on national test scores between 2003 and 2015, according to a recent analysis of National Assessment of Education Progress released in February.

With the exception of fifth-grade English and 11th-grade English, less than half of Michigan’s students reached proficiency in core subjects on the state’s M-STEP standardized exam in 2016.