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Editorial: Snyder right to move school reform office

The Detroit News

It’s no surprise that Gov. Rick Snyder is frustrated with the lack of progress being made in Detroit schools, from the finances to academics. In recent months, he has signaled much bigger changes are coming, and his executive order Thursday to gain control of the state school reform office fits into this agenda. It’s the right choice.

Snyder should be frustrated. After six years of state oversight, Detroit Public Schools has remained mired in debt and declining enrollment. Clearly, a bigger shake-up is needed.

As expected, the governor moved the State School Reform and Redesign Office out from under the Michigan Department of Education to the Michigan Department of Technology, Management and Budget — a department that reports directly to the governor, unlike the education department.

“Improving our schools is a Michigan priority, whether you live in an urban, suburban or rural community,” he said in a statement.

The reform office has oversight of the 5 percent of schools that are the lowest-performing in the state. And it works along with the independently run Education Achievement Authority, the reform district that operates 15 of the worst schools in Detroit.

Snyder has longstanding frustrations with the State Board of Education, the elected panel that oversees the department, and its lack of commitment to reform. The Democrat-majority board is responsible for electing the state superintendent. Superintendent Mike Flanagan is retiring in June, and the board is in the process of finding his replacement.

By issuing the executive order, Snyder is giving a clear warning to the board that if it chooses a superintendent that is resistant to the kind of education reforms the administration seeks, even more control could be taken away from the department.

And it looks like the board may be poised to choose such a candidate. On Wednesday, the board narrowed its prospective superintendent pool to three candidates — all of whom serve as local or intermediate district superintendents in Michigan. Vickie Markavitch, superintendent of Oakland Schools, is a finalist, and she is definitely on Snyder’s radar as an opponent of school choice. Scott Menzel, superintendent at the Washtenaw Intermediate School District, and Brian Whiston, superintendent at Dearborn Public Schools, also made the cut.

State Board President John Austin issued a statement Wednesday claiming the board has been in “active communication with the governor’s office” about the superintendent search and warned the governor against going through with the order.

“Gov. Snyder’s executive order, moving state school turnaround authority from the Michigan Department of Education to DTMB is unfortunate and counterproductive,” Austin said. “The State Board of Education is committed to supporting effective school turnaround efforts, including new approaches to manage a quality network of public schools emerging from the work of the Detroit coalition.”

Snyder is already seeking counsel from this broad Detroit coalition forming a blueprint for fixing city schools. The group is expected to have its recommendations ready by the end of this month.

The governor wants community backing for the next round of reforms. But whatever form that plan takes, Snyder’s direct control of the school reform office should help with the execution of the new agenda.

Snyder has contemplated moving the reform office for a while. This was the right time to do it.