Editorial: Grading schools shouldn't be this hard

The Detroit News

We were pleased to see the Legislature finally step up and pass a common-sense school accountability bill last month. And while some resistance was expected to the new A-F school grading model, it is disappointing such lame excuses are coming from the Michigan Department of Education.

As soon as Gov. Rick Snyder signed the bill, the MDE starting plotting how it would fight the straight-forward legislation to give parents an honest and transparent assessment of how their child’s school is doing, based on a number of factors. The department currently rates schools with a “dashboard.”

That’s an improvement over the odd color-coded model the MDE used for a long time, but it’s still not as clear as a letter-grading system.

In this Sept. 17, 2018 file photo, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaks during a student town hall at National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. President Donald Trump’s school safety commission is proposing a rollback of Obama-era guidance that was meant to curb racial disparities in school discipline. The commission was led by DeVos and made dozens of policy recommendations in a report released Tuesday. Trump created the panel in March following the deadly school shooting in Parkland, Florida.

The office began the year by stating it would seek the opinion of new state Attorney General Dana Nessel, as well as that of the U.S. Department of Education, since the MDE claims the new law violates part of the federal law overseeing public education.

Interim Superintendent Sheila Alles wrote a letter in December to state senators, highlighting her concerns with the A-F bill. She pointed to how the legislation could conflict with federal guidelines related to special education. Yet these seem more like technicalities that the state could work out with the federal government.

It would be helpful if U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos stepped in to chide the MDE, given the Michigan native is a strong proponent of school accountability, including A-F models.

It’s also worth noting that Alles took over from Superintendent Brian Whiston after he died last spring. Whiston had been a supporter of an A-F system, and he’d included that in original draft language in the state’s 2017 plan to be submitted to the federal government under the Every Student Succeeds Act. The accountability plan is required for states to receive federal school funding.

But pressure from the State Board of Education caused Whiston to back away from that plan -- which was supported by Snyder -- and include a bizarre three-pronged approach. Two of the three options still included a version of the A-F model. But the third was the dashboard, which was to take effect by default if the Legislature didn’t step in.

Since lawmakers didn’t act in time, the state ended up with the dashboard.

So Alles is well aware that Whiston supported the A-F model, and she should be more open to putting the new law in place.

It’s unclear what will happen now. If the MDE refuses to follow the law, Nessel is unlikely to enforce it. And Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is beholden to the teachers unions, which oppose most accountability measures, especially A-F.

It shouldn’t be this hard for parents to have a meaningful school grading system.