Lawmakers move to save Snyder’s experimental district
By T. Kelly
The Michigan Citizen
DETROIT — Troubles for Gov. Rick Snyder’s experimental school district, the Education Achievement Authority, appear to be growing. One-fourth of the students are gone this year; there has been a loss of 32 staff members within the first three months of the school year; and a key board member has resigned against a backdrop of ongoing protest against the EAA.
EMU’s Dean of Education Dr. Jann Joseph resigned from the EAA board Dec. 1 after 31 members of the faculty in the EMU College of Education publicly supported breaking away from the troubled district. The EAA was created by an agreement between the university’s board of regents and then Detroit Public Schools Emergency Manager Roy Roberts in 2011. To start, the EAA took 15 DPS buildings, their contents and state funding despite protests from the DPS elected board and community members.
To protest EMU’s ties with the EAA, six Washtenaw County districts and the Taylor school district are all refusing to allow EMU student teachers to practice in their schools
The EMU faculty protest continued at the Dec. 10, EMU Board of Regents meeting. “Affiliation with the politically-motivated, dysfunctionally-deployed and pedagogically-unsupportable EAA has tarnished our reputation,” said Steve Camron, EMU associate professor of special education. “The development, operations and instructional practices of the EAA run counter to our college’s mission, values and teaching.”
Camron was one of eight speakers asking the EMU regents to break ties with the EAA. EMU regents are appointees of the governor.
Meanwhile at the Dec. 3 meeting of the EAA, little was said about the drop in enrollment this fall. However, the effects of fewer pupils were visible in the amended budget. State revenues based on student head count are $3.7 million less than first projected for 2014. However, the federal department of education gave EAA $21.9 million more to spend than originally anticipated. In its first year, EAA had to borrow $12 million using DPS borrowing authority.
This year there are 3,765 high school students and 3,328 elementary students enrolled in the EAA.
EAA staff loss was a topic that created discussion, much of it defensive. The “Human Capital Report” delivered to the members describes significant staff losses: “only six of the 32 resigning staff expressed job dissatisfaction, others left for “personal reasons,” according to the report presenter.
Board Member Mark Murray believes employees often say they are leaving for personal reasons because they do not “want to engage or leave a bad taste.”
The Human Capital officer said he talked with other schools who told him the number of departures was not unusual.
The EAA has been sharply criticized for replacing DPS teachers with Teach for America students when they took over the 15 Detroit schools.
Also, the EAA board voted to hire NCS Pearson, Inc, of Atlanta to be an “external provider for Mumford,” according to Mary Esselman, Chief Officer, Accountability, Equity, and Innovation. She said Pearson provides “different instruction; makes sure teachers can differentiate who is learning.”
Pearson is “identified across the country as a turnaround provider,” Esselman said, noting she had visited schools Pearson had turned around. The company “provides on-site assistance, especially in core classes.”
Gov. Snyder said originally the purpose of the EAA was to “turn around” failing schools.
CHANCELLOR GETS A COACH
The EAA board voted to hire Interactive Learning Systems LLC of Columbia, S.C., as an “executive coach” for Chancellor John Covington. Covington was superintendent of the Kansas City schools before being hired to run the EAA. Under his watch in Kansas City, the district lost accreditation.
Manta.com, a business reporting website, reports Interactive was established in 2011 and incorporated in South Carolina. By current estimates, this company has annual revenues of $49,000 and employs a staff of approximately one, Ron Epps.
Chairperson Carol Goss of the Skillman Foundation questioned what the coach would be doing for Covington. No one answered her question, but Covington did say Epps had worked as a coach with the Broad and Stepp Foundations and listed the cities where he worked including Rockford, Ill., Topeka, Kan., and Columbia, S.C. Interactive’s company Facebook page does not list any engagements. The measure was approved unanimously.
The board also approved a service contract for education activist Mary Woods with the title, Advocate for Accountability. Goss said Woods was a “compassionate advocate and all of us have gotten emails (from Woods) when we are not following the rules of the state of Michigan. She has been helpful to me.”
A week later, on Dec. 10, Woods sent the first email in months noting the EAA board may not have the required members to operate legally.
“The Education Achievement Authority original 11-member public board of directors has been operating for months with only five active members. There are questions whether the current “active” executive committee members are indeed holding these positions legally,” Woods wrote.
Both the Governor and the emergency manager of Detroit Public Schools have failed to fill vacancies on the EAA board, she said. Noting various errors on the state website list of EAA board members, Woods said, “Even though three of the governor’s appointees have resigned they have not been replaced. One of the DPS positions has been vacant for nearly 18 months… Also, Roy Roberts, the former EM of DPS has been a no show at meetings since Sept.”
SPECIAL ED STUDENTS
Kevin Magin, executive vice-president of Futures Education, made a presentation to the board explaining how special education funds are received from the state and federal government. Futures is the private corporation hired by the EAA to provide special education services.
Magin’s presentation explained the EAA receives the most per-pupil funding when the special education student is taught in a general classroom. The EAA has been criticized for illegally placing special ed students in regular classrooms. State Rep. Ellen Cogin Lipton filed a formal complaint against the EAA special ed practices with the U.S. Department of Education. It is under investigation.
Covington objected to the criticism, noting many of the special ed students coming from DPS were “misdiagnosed. They didn’t belong there,” he said.
“We have them appropriately diagnosed,” he said. “They are back in a general education.”
Covington said, in fact, the special ed students are now outperforming the rest of the students.
Covington also announced Judge Paula Humphries was hired to be the district’s hearing officer.
Education advocate Helen Moore was the only member of the public to address the EAA.
“What you are talking about here today is totally different than what the community knows is going on. When do you decide this experiment is not working; is not in the best interests of our children?” Moore asked. “We need one school system with all the money in one pot; it’s better.”
STATE TRIES TO EXPAND EAA
More “failing” schools will be taken into the Education Achievement Authority as soon as January if the GOP lawmakers in Lansing are successful in rushing legislation through as this paper goes to press.
State Sen. Bert Johnson said the Republican lawmakers were caucusing with Gov. Rick Snyder’s aide Richard Baird on Dec. 11 and the Senate was expected to vote the same day.
“We haven’t seen the bill,” Johnson said. “It’s surprise politics as usual. I can’t speak cogently until I see the bill.”
One day earlier, State Superintendent Mike Flanagan announced more failing schools would be added to the EAA as early as January. According to the state department of education website there are 137 “priority” districts in Michigan.
Reports are that some of these districts will be exempted and allowed to stay under the jurisdiction of local school boards.
Johnson did not know the criteria for allowing the exemption. To date, the 15 EAA schools, like the districts under emergency management, are majority Black.
Karla Swift, president of the state AFL-CIO, criticized the EAA expansion.
“This is dangerous legislation that allows for the state takeover of public schools based on standardized testing. … The EAA, in operation for little more than a year, is a failed experiment. It’s very concerning that the legislature could move forward with expanding the powers and size of the EAA, especially in light of the fact that about 2,500 students left EAA schools this year, representing 24 percent of the district’s population.”
If transferred to EAA authority, school employees would lose their collective bargaining rights and the EAA chancellor could “terminate or modify” any contract, the labor leader said.
Flanagan said he wants the expansion because, “ I feel a moral obligation to do so for the sake of the children suffering in a handful of schools where they are not learning.”