Snyder moves school reform office to budget department

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Gov. Rick Snyder signed an executive order Thursday moving a Department of Education office charged with monitoring Michigan's lowest academically performing schools into a state agency he directly controls.

Snyder's action moves School Reform Office's K-12 education reform and accountability functions to the Department of Technology, Management and Budget. DTMB already houses a public education data-gathering office, the Center for Educational Performance and Information.

The Department of Education is one state agency over which the Republican governor does not constitutionally have direct control. The department is run by the superintendent of public instruction, Mike Flanagan, an appointee of the elected State Board of Education, which is controlled by Democrats.

"I obviously would prefer to have the State Reform Office stay here, but the governor has the authority to do this," Flanagan, who is retiring at the end of June, said in a statement.

Since taking office in 2011, Snyder has signaled his displeasure with the School Reform Office for a lack of progress since its 2009 inception in turning around 139 schools in the bottom 5 percent of academic achievement.

"The governor thought we needed more proactive action to address this situation," Snyder spokeswoman Sara Wurfel said Thursday.

Snyder's move angered some Board of Education members who learned about it Wednesday through The Detroit News and other media reports as they were narrowing a field of finalists for the state superintendent's job.

Board of Education President John Austin said Snyder's transfer of the department's school reform and accountability powers to DTMB signals a desire to "further dismantle the state board and the department."

"We will do our best to overcome, but it's counterproductive and I'm most concerned it's not the most effective way to turnaround these schools," Austin told The News.

The move could give Snyder flexibility to place more failing schools under direct state supervision.

In February 2014, Flanagan pulled the plug on the Education Achievement Authority's exclusive 15-year contract with the School Reform Office to be the only operator of persistently failing K-12 schools.

Flanagan's move was seen as a setback to Snyder's EAA project, which has billed itself as a statewide school reform district, even though it only operates 15 schools in Detroit. Those schools were transferred to the EAA by Snyder's Detroit Public Schools emergency manager. Legislation expanding the EAA's size to 50 schools persistently faltered during the last legislative session.

Snyder's office created the EAA in 2011 through an interlocal agreement between DPS and Eastern Michigan University to serve as the state's school reform district. A 2009 education reform law was supposed to create such a district, but it never materialized.

Austin acknowledged state board members have been displeased that Flanagan "didn't appear willing" to use the 2009 law to force changes at persistently poor-performing schools or make them close their doors.

"I understood completely why the governor felt … we needed something to turn around schools … because our department was not doing it," Austin said of the EAA.

Flanagan was unavailable Thursday for an interview, a spokesman said.

Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, welcomed the governor's move, noting charter schools are closed annually because of low academic achievement.

"No traditional public school has even been closed for academic reasons," Quisenberry said. "It's time for all public schools to be held to the same high standards of accountability and transparency."

Wurfel said the administration has no plans to resurrect the EAA's role as the sole entity running the state's school reform district.

"This does not effect the EAA," Wurfel said.

The governor's executive order takes effect in 60 days. The small staff in the School Reform Office, including reform officer Natasha Baker, will be moved to DTMB, Wurfel said.

Snyder's action drew criticism from Democrats Thursday as a play for more power, fueling suspicions that he desires to create a parallel education system outside of the constitutional boundaries of the State Board of Education.

"Once again, Gov. Snyder is choosing partisan politics and his own personal power over the best interests of students and the wishes of the electorate," said Sam Inglot, spokesman for the liberal political group Progress Michigan.