Editorial: Who is going to fix Michigan’s schools?

The Detroit News

Two years after Gov. Rick Snyder made waves by pulling the state’s School Reform Office out from under the Michigan Department of Education, he has decided to move it back. If anything, this is a recognition of just how difficult it is to improve schools and do away with the ones resistant to change.

Many — including us — had hoped the reform office would do more under Snyder’s supervision to address failing schools. The reality was that nothing really changed. Leadership of the SRO stayed the same, as did the office’s intervention (or lack thereof) in the bottom-performing schools in the state.

Snyder assumed oversight of the SRO around the same time he was putting together a legislative plan to bail out and turn around Detroit Public Schools.

It seemed he wanted to use legal authority of this office to implement broader reforms for urban districts across Michigan, with a focus on Detroit, which has the highest concentration of failing schools.

The first real attempt to use the SRO in a more active way was tied to the Detroit bailout legislation, passed last year. Lawmakers included specific language tasking the office with closing schools that had been in the bottom 5 percent for three consecutive years.

Twenty-five schools in Detroit met that standard, and after a few legal challenges, the SRO moved forward to close them earlier this year. Twenty-four are in the Detroit Public Schools Community District, and one is a charter school. Thirteen more are out-state. After School Reform Officer Natasha Baker bungled that attempt, however, no schools closed.

While Central Michigan University, the authorizer of Detroit’s Michigan Technical Academy that was set to close, made the call recently to shutter the school this summer, all the DPSCD schools will remain open.

Even though charters take a lot of heat for their performance, they are more accountable in this way. Authorizers have closed more than 100 schools when they don’t live up to their promises. Traditional public schools in Michigan have never closed for academic reasons.

The SRO could have changed that, but it didn’t.

“We don’t think it matters where the office is located, the state has the moral and constitutional authority to teach all kids,” stated Beth DeShone, advocacy director of the Great Lakes Education Project. “Sadly, we’ve not thus far seen the courage to exercise the real accountability and achieve the real change too many kids so desperately need.”

Snyder seems to have a decent relationship with state Superintendent Brian Whiston, who was hired after the education department lost control of the reform office. And he’s crafted a partnership agreement to work with the schools statewide that were supposed to close.

“Improving our schools and holding them accountable for their performance is critical to Michigan students’ success,” Snyder said in a statement.

That sounds good, but it’s not clear what has changed. The governor is reportedly going to work with the Legislature this fall to revamp the state’s failing schools law, which created the Reform Office. He wanted to join Senate Education Chairman Phil Pavlov, R-St. Clair Township, in his effort to make the law more meaningful.

But the momentum Pavlov had earlier this year, along with buy-in from many school leaders, has dissipated following the news that low-performing schools wouldn’t close and that Whiston was offering an alternative.

Snyder’s SRO experiment was worth a shot, but the oversight switch ended up being more about optics than the substantial changes Michigan families deserve.