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GOP pushes statewide school privatization legislation

Measure to legalize, expand EAA

By T. Kelly
The Michigan Citizen

EAA students

EAA students Tiumeia Smith, Jordyn Allen and Joshua Davis give testimony at November 13 House Education Committee hearing. RALPH JONES PHOTO

DETROIT — Billed as education reform, a new Republican measure would give the governor power over an expanded, statewide Educational Achievement Authority (EAA) with power to seize local school district properties and weaken local control.

Subject of a legislative hearing Nov. 13, the citizens who traveled to Lansing and who opposed the bill were not allowed to testify on House Bill 6004.

St. Rep.  Lisa Posthumus Lyon, R-Alto, chair of the House Education Committee, gave the three and a half hour hearing to proponents of the measure, effectively silencing nearly 20 citizens who had traveled to Lansing to testify against the measure.

The bill will legalize and expand the EAA arrangement Emergency Manager (EM) Roy Roberts signed with Eastern Michigan University in September 2011. Although the EAA was announced as a statewide district, it only operates in and with Detroit Public schools. To create it, Roberts gave 15 Detroit Public School (DPS) buildings and contents for one dollar to Gov. Rick Snyder’s EAA. Private, for-profit education businesses operate three of the schools while Detroit taxpayers will be paying for the construction and repairs on those same buildings for the next two decades.

“You see the Republican antipathy to democracy,” said Tom Pedroni, associate professor of curriculum studies in the division of teacher education at Wayne State University. Pedroni was among those who submitted a request to testify and provided a written statement of his comments in opposition to HB 6004. “A hearing is supposed to hear different points of view.”

A companion bill is now before the Senate education committee, SB1358. Opponents traveled to Lansing on Nov. 8 to testify on the Senate version, but were also denied a chance to be heard.

According to the House Fiscal Agency, the bill as introduced Nov. 8:

  • Creates a separate Michigan K-12 school district called the reform district, for the 5 percent lowest-performing schools.
  • Cancels collective bargaining agreements when a school enters the EAA, but does require certification of teachers.
  • Requires an inventory of unused school buildings statewide so they can be leased or sold to other educational entities, including charters and nonpublic schools. All schools in a district with emergency managers must be available to insure “optimum use.”
  • Gives the governor power to appoint five of seven board members and then pick the two additional board members from lists provided by the Senate Majority Leader and the Speaker of the House.

Education committee members expressed concerns about the measure including the lack of local control, the requirement that empty school buildings in any district be turned over to the EAA and for-profit charters and the absence of a track record for the EAA, which has been operating for only two and half months.

EAA Chancellor Dr. John Covington, the fired former Kansas City Superintendent, testified that the EAA per pupil allotment of less than $7,800 comes from the state and is not supplemented by local property taxes.

“We need fundraising and state and federal funds,” he said. The pending bills allow the EAA to establish a non-profit organization in order to raise money. The bill allows the EAA to incur debt, but does not bind the state to back the debt, nor can the EAA members be liable for any of their actions.

Throughout their testimony both Covington and Mary Esselman, of the EAA, stressed that the EAA method was “student centered,” and brought three students and two parents to confirm the computer-based, individualized instruction.

Pedroni, in his prepared text, denies the EAA approach is student-centered. “The only difference between the EAA’s model and the traditional factory model of learning is that while the discredited factory model involves the teacher dumping knowledge into 25 heads at the same rate, the EAA model has one ‘teacher’ (a computer) attempting to dump knowledge into just one child.”

Three members of the State Board of Education closed out testimony in opposition to the measure. Marianne McGuire, treasurer of the state board of education, testified that the “EAA only started operating this past summer and, to date, has no record of achievement for its students.

“It offers a prescription for taking a district’s property, for wiping out locally elected boards of education, establishing a curriculum separate from the rest of the state, exempting itself from taking MEAP tests, offering no academic or financial accountability and placing itself in a position to compete financially with the current Department of Education for federal funds,” McGuire said. “As the EAA travels in its parallel universe, answerable only to whatever governor happens to be in office, the plan as stated in this bill has the potential to wreak great havoc statewide.”

Legislator Douglas Geiss, D-Taylor, pushed for focus on students rather than buildings. He said one school in his district started the year with 300 students and ended with the same number, but that over the course of the school year there was a 50 percent turnover in the population with many students from Detroit coming in and out of the district.

“There are other things to take our eye off the ball from being student-centered,” Geiss said. “The funding was cut $400 per pupil, creating a $1 million deficit (in my district).”

Rep. Lisa Brown, D-West Bloomfield, questioned the requirement of the bill for districts to transfer empty buildings to the EAA.

Saying that the building her children had attended in West Bloomfield is now empty, Brown asked, “Will low-achieving students from districts in proximity — Flint, Pontiac, Detroit — be bused in?”

Covington responded, “No, not Bloomfield especially, no low-achieving students.”

McGuire also addressed the disposal of empty buildings. “I ask you to keep all this in mind as you consider your vote on a bill that, among other things, says a school district will be obligated to sell or lease closed schools to the EAA,” she said. “Taxpayers do not want to see their belongings given to third party strangers. In most arenas this is called stealing. Nevertheless, this bill legalizes the confiscation of locally owned and paid for property to turn over to others. These are decisions that rightfully belong with a local district and its democratically elected boards. “

The citizens who did not get to testify were told that if they returned Nov. 19 they could speak. At press time, no time for the hearing had been scheduled.

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