Detroit group upset with Snyder’s school reform move

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Two leaders of a Detroit coalition preparing to give Gov. Rick Snyder recommendations for improving the city’s public schools are upset with Snyder’s abrupt decision to take control of a state agency charged with turning around academically failing schools.

Snyder issued an executive order Thursday moving the School Reform Office from the Department of Education — which he does not oversee — to the Department of Technology, Management and Budget, putting K-12 school accountability and restructuring directly under his control.

Tonya Allen, co-chair of the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren, said the group of community, business, religious and labor leaders was “disappointed” that Snyder had “pre-empted” recommendations to him for improving delivery and rationalization of Detroit’s public education landscape. A report to Snyder is due March 31.

“Obviously we’re disappointed that this decision is being made prior to our set of recommendations that are coming out and also prior to the hiring of a new superintendent,” said Allen, president of the Detroit-based Skillman Foundation. “We think that this reform office is going to be especially critical and important to Detroit.”

Allen commented on Snyder’s decision to move the School Reform Office during a conference call Friday with reporters about the status of the coalition’s broad investigation into the functions and finances of Detroit Public Schools, charter schools and the Education Achievement Authority, all of which compete for children within the city.

She called Snyder’s executive order “a distracting bit of news.”

A state teachers union leader — one of the coalition’s other five co-chairs — issued a statement Thursday saying the Republican governor was “ignoring the voice of Michigan’s voters” who elected a Democratic-controlled State Board of Education, which controls the Department of Education through its appointed superintendent.

“Moving an office with an educational focus from the Department of Education, which understands education policy and has expertise, to a department focused on budgets is bad public policy,” said David Hecker, president of the American Federation of Teachers Michigan.

A third co-chair of the coalition tried to put a “positive spin” on Snyder’s actions.

“I do think it shows us that nothing’s off-limits,” John Rakolta Jr., CEO of the Walbridge construction company, said Friday. “As a coalition, it sort of opens the door for us to be bold and provocative in looking at solutions that will be able to turn around the declining trajectory that we have here in Detroit.”

Meanwhile Friday, a member of the coalition’s policy subcommittee announced her resignation. Simone Lightfoot, a Ann Arbor Board of Education trustee, wrote in her resignation letter that the group’s focus was on preserving the EAA, not improving public education in Detroit.

“Our work should leave Detroit Public Schools stronger and more empowered than before, with greater student learning outcomes and fiscal solvency,” Lightfoot said in the statement. “This sadly appears will not be the case.”

Coalition leaders have been tight-lipped about the changes they will recommend to the governor, who wants to pursue legislative changes this spring.

Snyder’s office did immediately return a message Friday seeking comment.

But the governor has signaled a desire to put the School Reform Office to work holding schools accountable for low student test scores, as was envisioned under 2009 legislation signed by then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm.

“We must ensure all schools are meeting high standards so that our children are on the right path for success and quality of life,” Snyder said Thursday in a statement.

Critics of outgoing Superintendent of Public Instruction Mike Flanagan, particularly Republican legislators, contend Flanagan and his department have dragged their feet with school reform measures in recent years.

On that front, Allen said coalition members “share the governor’s discontent.”

But they would have preferred Snyder hold off reorganizing state education agencies until after they made their recommendations, Allen said.

“To make piecemeal changes without a comprehensive look I do think it’s disappointing, because this is our moment and this is our opportunity to really tackle tough issues and turn a trajectory of school performance around for the state,” Allen said.