Gov to take control of school reform office

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

Gov. Rick Snyder is planning to strip the office that works alongside the controversial Education Achievement Authority school district from control of the state Department of Education and place it under his direct oversight, two sources in the Legislature say.

The EAA, which operates 15 of the worst schools in Detroit, is run by its own governing board but it works in concert with the School Reform and Redesign Office. The governor will issue an executive order soon to move that office to the Michigan Department of Technology, Management and Budget, say the two sources who were briefed on the plan but were not authorized to discuss it publicly. The budget office, unlike the education department, reports directly to the governor.

Sara Wurfel, spokeswoman for Snyder, would not confirm the order is coming, but called it "one piece of the puzzle" the governor is considering.

"The governor has made it pretty clear that assuring Michigan has a strong public school system and that our kids get the best education possible is a top priority," Wurfel said in a statement. "He's looking at all options on how to make that a reality, including this potential executive order."

The EAA was formed in 2011 as an education experiment aimed at proving the worst urban schools could be turned around with highly skilled principals and individualized learning plans. It has had a rocky start. A new chancellor was just named, and most of the original principals are being replaced.

"Over the past four years we have seen countless resources flow toward so-called education reforms in Michigan," Sen David Knezek, D-Dearborn Heights, said in response to reports of the executive order. "What remains unclear is the effectiveness of those reforms. I am calling on my colleagues in the Senate majority to hold hearings on the proposed executive action."

The elected, Democrat-controlled state school board and the Republican governor have frequently clashed in their views of how best to turn around failing schools. Superintendent Mike Flanagan was initially supportive of the EAA despite the board's skepticism. But he is retiring in June, and the state board is in the process of selecting a replacement.

The governor has little influence over the Education Department, since the statewide-elected board members have independence in their oversight of the department. And the board will select Flanagan's replacement. The governor is said to be concerned a new superintendent will be more hostile to the EAA.

A leading candidate is Vickie Markavitch, superintendent of the Oakland County intermediate school district, and an outspoken critic of charter schools and who opposes school choice — both of which Snyder strongly supports.

School Board President John Austin, in an email to the media late Wednesday, said he is encouraging the governor not to issue the executive order, calling it counterproductive. Austin blamed reports of the action for scaring away another top superintendent candidate, an executive with the Massachusetts state schools.

The executive order is Snyder's warning to the board members that if they select a superintendent not in line with his reform agenda, he is prepared to move more school oversight away from the Department of Education.

Such a move isn't unprecedented. Former Gov. John Engler used a similar tactic to shift administration of K-12 standardized tests to the Treasury Department in the 1990s, a decision later reversed by Gov. Jennifer Granholm.

Moving the school reform office to gubernatorial control would also come ahead of the significant changes Snyder is preparing for Detroit schools. While he's still waiting on recommendations from the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren, a group of around 30 community stakeholders, the plan is expected by the end of the month.

The reform office could be expanded to house the elements of his Detroit strategy, allowing Snyder to implement the structural changes without interference from the state board.

Snyder and his team are said to be looking at moving all schools, including charters, to a portfolio model that would streamline management and operations.

Cutting the state board out of the Detroit restructuring process would make the rollout of this new plan much easier, since many Detroit schools are among the 5 percent lowest performing in the state, the threshold for falling under the reform office jurisdiction.