Jacques: This is the wrong way to close schools

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

Natasha Baker has gotten the attention of schools around the state.

After years of fairly passive interaction with poor-performing schools, Michigan’s school reform officer has put 38 schools on notice — and the families who send children there — that these buildings could close.

But here’s the problem: The School Reform Office is not offering parents good alternatives. That’s an essential part of this equation. It’s not enough to shutter a building. You have to give families something better in return, and be transparent about how that process will work.

Parents are justifiably concerned.

The schools on the closure list certainly deserve scrutiny. They have landed on the state’s lowest 5 percent of schools for at least three years in a row. Most of them — 25 — are in Detroit.

A number of critics have rightly raised concerns about how those schools have been graded. It’s not just teachers unions, either. It’s also groups like the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, which points out several schools that have made improvements in recent years are still subject to closure by the SRO.

This is partly why Senate Education Committee Chairman Phil Pavlov, R-St. Clair Township, is now leading a discussion about how to shake-up the state’s law dealing with failing schools. That law created the Reform Office seven years ago, in an unsuccessful attempt to win federal education grants.

Two years ago, Gov. Rick Snyder swiped the office out from under the Michigan Department of Education and put in under one he directly controls: The Department of Technology, Management and Budget.

The governor was frustrated with the lack of action on school turnarounds. The whole point of moving the Reform Office was to get ready for widespread changes to Detroit schools.

When legislation to bailout Detroit Public Schools finally passed last summer, Republican lawmakers included language tasking Baker and her colleagues with closing schools that fell on the worst performing list for three years.

So give her credit for following through with what the Legislature wanted.

Yet now that Baker is taking action, Snyder keeps backing away from the idea of accountability through closure. He was quick to backtrack last year after a legal memo suggested school closures in Detroit couldn’t happen for another three years. Attorney General Bill Schuette put a stop to that, saying the law called for immediate action.

And now a top aide to Snyder, Rich Baird, is saying school closure may not mean a school building will actually close. He paid a visit earlier this week to a town hall in Detroit about the potential closures.

“We have to think about closure in terms of closing out failure, not closing out buildings, and not closing out effective educational offerings,” Baird said.

It’s obvious he’s trying to calm fears, but good luck deciphering what the governor’s team actually wants to do.

The State Board of Education, which is now evenly split between Republicans and Democrats, voted this week to say it doesn’t like the idea of closures.

And when Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan recently launched his re-election bid, he specifically said he’d fight closing schools in the city.

This seems ironic, though, since Duggan had fought hard for a Detroit Education Commission as part of the DPS bailout, to ensure more accountability across DPS and charters.

State Board member Pamela Pugh, a Democrat, said the state shouldn’t be labeling kids as failures by closing schools.

But that’s not the point at all. It’s extremely unfair for kids to have no other option than a school that’s failing them.

Baker is right to take action. The circus surrounding her current strategy, however, is the wrong way to go about it.

Twitter: @Ingrid_Jacques