Column: Gov, keep fighting for Michigan students

Greg McNeilly

Gov. Rick Snyder appears done trying to help the kids of Michigan.

It’s hard to draw any other conclusion, following his handling this spring of the state’s worst performing schools, and news just this month that he’s giving up control of the state’s School Reform Office and passing it off to an education department that’s been failing Michigan kids for generations.

Things haven’t always looked so bleak.

Just two years ago, backed by education reformers in the legislature who’ve spent entire careers fighting for students, Snyder took the SRO out of the Department of Education and moved it under his control.

Those same lawmakers also partnered with the governor to enact an important reform for students, passing legislation to potentially close any school that found itself performing in the bottom 5 percent of state schools for three consecutive years. This January, 38 schools met that criteria, 25 of them in Detroit.

That should have been it. Time to rescue thousands of kids held captive, and to get them into classrooms that better meet their needs. But it wasn’t. The unions and special interests who’ve made a big and profitable business out of destroying kids’ futures wrung their hands, the SRO’s leadership bungled the closure process, and then the governor abandoned it. He gave up.

The one Detroit charter school on the list is being shuttered by its authorizer, recognizing its failure to deliver for kids. The chronically failing traditional public schools? They’ll go right on chronically failing kids. Not a single one of them will close its doors. In the history of the state of Michigan, no traditional public school has ever been closed due to poor academic performance.

Instead of going to bat for students, the governor and his SRO set about negotiating milquetoast “turnaround plans” with the school districts that house chronically failing schools. Most of the plans are both farcical and offensive. For instance, in Detroit, under the agreement, the district has until the end of this month to set initial improvement goals for each partnership school. The objectives must include “at least one growth goal and one proficiency goal.” The school then has three years to meet these amorphous goals.

Parents are tougher on their kids when they don’t eat their vegetables than Detroit’s turnaround plan is with its hometown failure factories.

The time line, of course, is not insignificant or accidental. Snyder will be gone by those deadlines.

This month’s executive order transferring control of the SRO out of the governor’s office was a signal by the Executive branch that they’ve washed their hands completely of any attempt to rescue kids whose futures are squandered one wasted school at a time.

It’s hard to overstate the severity of the crisis the governor is ignoring.

Detroit has repeatedly been rated the absolute worst performing school district in the nation. A shocking analysis of national test scores published this year by the Brookings Institution found that statewide, Michigan students were dead last in the United States when it comes to proficiency growth since 2003.

Of course, Michigan’s public school crisis isn’t only unfolding in Detroit. In 2015, the Pacific Research Institute published a scathing study of Michigan public schools in middle-class and affluent school districts. Researchers crunched the numbers in 677 public schools where 33 percent or less of their students were classified as low income. Among these schools, 316 had 60 percent or more of their students in at least one grade level failing to meet proficiency benchmarks on state and federal tests. Even many of the schools we think are good aren’t so great.

It all adds up to a systemic, generational failure by Michigan’s public schools to meet the needs of Michigan’s kids.

And the governor just gave up on the last sad effort to address even the lowest hanging fruit.

But it’s not too late. Gov. Snyder, please re-engage, and rejoin the fight and let’s end the generational cycle of failing schools that has become a legacy tradition in Michigan.

Greg McNeilly is chairman of the Michigan Freedom Fund.