Jacques: School reform stumps Snyder

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

Gov. Rick Snyder must feel a bit like Sisyphus, whose curse was to roll a boulder up a hill for eternity.

Education reform is Snyder’s boulder, and it’s proven one of the most challenging items on his to-do list. While he was able to lead the city of Detroit through a historic bankruptcy, make the state friendlier to business and balance the budget, finding effective ways to turn around public schools hasn’t worked out as well.

The governor has overseen some valuable reforms, including lifting the cap on charter schools, implementing more substantive teacher evaluations and helping ensure the best instructors are in front of students.

Yet more comprehensive reform — especially for schools struggling the most—has eluded Snyder. It’s not entirely his fault. He’s tried. But the way K-12 schools are run in Michigan, it’s difficult for a governor to really make a difference.

That’s partly why Snyder last year formed a 21st Century Education Commission, comprised of 25 members, to fashion a strategy for improving schools in Michigan. The final report, formally released on Friday, highlights some of the challenges and offers suggestions.

One of the nine primary recommendations is to change how public schools are governed. The commissioners offered a fairly radical approach through a shakeup of the State Board of Education, suggesting the governor select all or most members — or abolish the board altogether. This would put Michigan more in line with other states, including school leaders like Massachusetts.

State Rep. Tim Kelly, a Saginaw Township Republican, is a strong proponent of school choice and was disappointed the governor’s Education Commission didn’t support expanding it in Michigan.

Currently, as laid out in the state constitution, the eight board members are elected by voters. The board then hires a state superintendent who oversees the Department of Education. That often translates into the trustees and department advocating their own agenda, with the governor doing the same. Add in the Legislature, and you’ve got a complicated landscape.

Just look at what’s happened with Detroit schools.

“It’s been confusing,” says Superintendent Brian Whiston.

That’s an understatement. School leaders must feel like their heads are spinning. Since 2011, there have been an array of strategies regarding what to do with failing schools. That year, Snyder backed the creation of the Education Achievement Authority, which was supposed to turn around the 15 worst-performing Detroit Public Schools. Snyder was frustrated with the lack of results from the state’s School Reform Office, formed in 2009.

Yet six years later, the EAA is getting pulled back into the new Detroit Public Schools Community District, after showing lackluster results.

In 2015, Snyder got more aggressive with the Reform Office and moved it out from under the Education Department and under one he directly controlled. He had high hopes for using it to revamp DPS.

In the years he’s controlled the department, however, nothing has really happened. Legislation passed last year bailing out Detroit schools included language to close the worst schools. When the Reform Office finally showed some teeth earlier this year, threatening to close 25 schools in Detroit — and 13 outstate, community outcry followed and Snyder backed away from the ultimate accountability.

Now, Snyder has asked Whiston to lead school turnarounds. Whiston is proposing a “partnership model” which sounds an awful lot like strategies already used by the Reform Office (and that didn’t work well).

All this shows how difficult school turnarounds are, and it’s too bad the Education Commission didn’t put forward bigger ideas to deal with those worst performing schools. Missing from the report was any kind of push for true school choice, in the form of vouchers or tax credits. That would also take a constitutional amendment, but it’s the surest way to offer families in Detroit and around the state the option of a better school.

Twitter: @Ingrid_Jacques