Editorial: A new year to get school reform right?

The Detroit News
The A-F grading model will be a good foundation, but the state still needs a thoughtful system that offers true accountability.

Gov. Rick Snyder signed a bill Friday that will give Michigan’s schools A-F letter grades, a change that’s intended to offer parents a clear idea of how their child’s school is doing. The bill also erases the state law that requires a school reform officer.

Does that matter?

The fact no one is really talking about this fairly major change speaks volumes. The decade-old law had tasked the state Department of Education with hiring someone to oversee the state’s lowest-performing schools and implement turnaround plans.

The School Reform Office was supposed to ensure struggling schools followed improvement measures and enforce accountability, but its lack of effectiveness is why Snyder tried to bypass the office during his two terms in office.

Early in his tenure, Snyder created the now disbanded Education Achievement Authority, which sought to overhaul the 15 worst schools in Detroit.

And in 2015, Snyder made the bold move to shift the School Reform Office to the Department of Technology, Management and Budget from the Education Department so that he could have more direct oversight over the office. Michigan is one of only a few states to allow its governor so little control over schools, given the setup of the State Board of Education.

Even that move reaped little results. In early 2017, the SRO had threatened to close the worst-performing schools around the state -- most of which were in Detroit. Yet the plan was poorly executed, and in the end nothing happened.

At that point, Snyder pretty much gave up. He worked with late state Superintendent Brian Whiston to fashion “partnership agreements” with low-performing districts. That model is still in place, and the MDE has created a new office to oversee those partnerships.

In mid-2017, Snyder moved the School Reform Office back under the direction of the MDE, given his confidence in Whiston, and the reality his plans for the SRO had failed. The MDE has since morphed the reform office into the partnership operation.

Whiston died last spring, and interim Superintendent Sheila Alles has remained committed to the partnerships. In November, she appointed William Pearson to serve as the latest school reform officer, in addition to directing the Office of Partnership Districts, which has its own line item of $3.5 million in the state budget.

MDE spokesman Martin Ackley says that Pearson will stay on in his role with the partnership office, even when the new law takes effect.

This complicated history is a reflection of the school reform law’s ultimate failure. At least erasing the current model gives lawmakers a fresh start to re-work the framework, if they choose to tackle it.

The A-F grading model will be a good foundation, but the state still needs a thoughtful system that offers true accountability.