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Our Editorial: Find better cure for ailing schools

The Detroit News

Right out of the gate, state lawmakers are signaling they want to take on one of the most stubborn problems facing Michigan: how to deal with academically failing schools. As the state’s schools continue to lag in performance, fixing the current structure is paramount.

Senate Education Committee Chair Phil Pavlov, R-St. Clair, introduced a bill on the first day of the session that would repeal the current section of law regarding lowest-performing schools. That legislation took effect six years ago and was a result of Michigan’s involvement in the federal Race to the Top school grant competition.

“The initial goal was laudable: improvement of the state’s worst academically performing schools,” Pavlov said in a statement. “Yet the evidence raises serious doubts about whether that has been accomplished.”

As Pavlov says, the law has not had much impact. He wants the state to do better with school turnarounds. And it must. Too many students, especially in Detroit, are attending schools that are persistently failing and seem resistant to comprehensive reform.

This legislative action coincides with the State Reform Office — created under the Race to the Top legislation — finally taking more aggressive action against the state’s worst schools. It recently announced that 25 schools in Detroit could be subject to closure based on three years of test data. There are 38 statewide that could be closed.

Gov. Rick Snyder, frustrated with the Reform Office’s inaction under the Michigan Department of Education, moved the office under his direct control two years ago.

Closing the state’s chronically failing schools should be on the table. In Michigan, no traditional public school has ever been closed for academic performance, unlike numerous charter schools which have closed for that reason.

There’s no question some of the schools in Detroit need to go.

But while the Reform Office is taking overdue action, its leadership is not explaining how it is ranking schools, why it would close a school and how it would ensure students have a better alternative.

That’s concerning to lawmakers — and families potentially impacted by a school closure. These are essential pieces to a puzzle Michigan can’t seem to figure out.

As Pavlov asks, “How do we replace this law with something that actually incentivizes people — at both the state and local levels — to improve these schools for our kids? How should it work? What national examples can we consider?”

These are important questions.

But as the Legislature is contemplating how to proceed, that shouldn’t halt plans already in place to shutter some failing schools.

New legislation from last summer that bailed out Detroit Public Schools also tasked the Reform Office with closing schools in Detroit that landed in the bottom 5 percent of schools for three years in a row. The law also applies to charter schools across the state.

Of course, there has been pushback from the Detroit teachers union and others in the establishment about closing any school.

There is good reason to close schools that are failing kids, however. Michigan should look to states like New York that have figured out how to use school closure effectively.

Lawmakers should create a more cohesive, effective blueprint for the schools most in need of intervention. In the meantime, the Reform Office has to be more forthright about the work it’s doing.