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Open letter to U.S. Secretary of Education

Bert Johnson

Bert Johnson

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan visited Detroit area schools on May 6. The purpose of the visit was to observe “what’s working” in the state’s reform measures on education. Duncan, accompanied by Gov. Rick Snyder, visited two of the new EAA schools. Senator Bert Johnson, D-Detroit, hand-delivered the following letter to him.

Dear Secretary Duncan,

I hope this letter finds you well. Welcome to Detroit. As you join Gov. Rick Snyder today to tour facilities in the Educational Achievement Authority (EAA), I felt compelled to bring to your attention several grave issues with this experimental system.

I write today not only as a state senator from Detroit whose district encompasses several EAA schools, but as a father of three and a lawmaker who, in 2008-09, was joined by three Republicans and another Democrat in passing real education reforms through a divided legislature ahead of your Race to the Top program. The issue of education reform is personal to me. Political correctness and party dogma do not affect the decisions I make, particularly when it comes to educating our children.

Bills are being pushed through the Michigan Legislature today that would expand this experiment from its current 15 school territory in Detroit to a statewide system including the “bottom 5 percent” of schools in terms of academic performance. However, the EAA has only been in operation since September 2012 — not even one full school year — and already it has revealed itself to be ineffective and corrupt.

Lack of proven academic progress

EAA leadership likes to tout their statistic that in their first district-wide assessment, following the baseline test in the fall, 27 percent of EAA students advanced one year in reading while 22 percent advanced one year in math. Looking passed the fact that this means 73 percent in reading and 78 percent in math did not make such progress, the entire testing scheme used to make these evaluations was flawed by technological glitches that were not addressed until recently.

When the EAA legislation was considered before the Michigan House Education Committee, a teacher from Burns Elementary-Middle School, an EAA school, gave her account of the testing circumstances that garnered these results.

At the first baseline test, which is computer-based, some children’s login and password information did not work; the Internet stopped working multiple times during testing; some students lacked required headphones; others had to take their tests in the cafeteria because there was not enough classroom space.

A $2 million cash advance from the state of Michigan was supposed to address these glitches earlier this year, but the damage to the integrity of the EAA’s testing results, which are being used to advocate for expansion of the system, had already been done.

Lack of experienced educators

Recent Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests revealed information that the EAA has taken steps to leave unaddressed. The EAA has lost 12.6 percent of the teachers it began the year with. Students see instructors cycle in and out, making continuity and stability in the classroom impossible. At a March 12 meeting of the EAA board, a member of the administration even addressed what was called “separation concerns.”

Testimony given by the teacher from Burns School told the House panel that many middle school students did not have a full-time teacher in three of their four core subject areas for three months and substitute teachers often did not last an entire day. This comports with direct reports I have received from parents and educators indicating that a dozen Teach for America members walked off the job from Pershing High School, in my district, leaving pupils in the classroom last year. In some cases, athletic department staff are teaching students.

The FOIA documents also revealed that of the 356 teachers that remained by November, 51 percent had three or less years of experience while another 15 percent had only three to five years of experience.

Abuse of children

I have received reports of cruel treatment of students, including one child whose mouth was taped shut by an instructor for talking too much and another whose shoes were removed in the classroom for not paying attention.

Special needs children are not safe in the EAA, either. Dozens, if not hundreds, of Individualized Education Plans have been changed unilaterally by the EAA without input from — and sometimes as the result of intimidation of — parents, therapists and counselors. As you know, it is much more expensive to educate a special needs child, which leads to the EAA’s fiscal situation.

Financial malfeasance

Upon its inception, EAA leadership claimed 95 percent of funds would be dedicated to the classroom and 5 percent to administration and operation. Not even five months after opening its doors, those numbers have been revised to 90 percent and 10 percent, respectively. The EAA’s administration is bloated at the top, with exorbitant salaries paid to central staff members and each principal of the 15 current EAA schools paid tens of thousands of dollars more than their traditional public school counterparts.

It was recently reported that the EAA has received two $6 million loans from the already cash-strapped Detroit Public Schools (DPS) — so cash-strapped, indeed, that the Governor has seen fit to appoint an “Emergency Manager” to tend to its fiscal house. This occurred without the approval — or even knowledge — of the boards of DPS and the EAA, which calls into question the management structure of this organization. This is in addition to the earlier $2 million cash advance from the state to fix technological problems.

The EAA has been sold to legislators as able to draw a significant amount of its funding from private resources. The system has raised just a fraction of its needed operating costs and the EAA Chancellor, John Covington, has stated that it needs more than the typical per-pupil allotment from the state our other traditional public schools receive.

Federal investigation

Investigators from the Office of the Inspector General from your own department have recently visited Michigan to look into suspected financial improprieties within the EAA, including the use of federal funds to provide a no-bid contract valued at roughly $300,000 to a firm affiliated with a former member of the EAA board. This individual was a member of the board when the contract was approved.

Safety, security and disciplinary concerns

School guards in the EAA, contracted through a private firm, are paid barely above the minimum wage and lack training in even the most basic duties, such as CPR and first aid. The ineffective security measures at the EAA are reflected in reports last month of its stunning disciplinary statistics, where, in just five months of existence, the EAA had compiled more than 5,000 infractions against students at a rate that has only increased with time.

Failed leadership

Every successful organization must be helmed by a successful leader. Unfortunately, in the case of the EAA, that is simply not true. Weeks after EAA Chancellor John Covington left his post as superintendent of the Kansas City Public Schools, the state of Missouri revoked that district’s state accreditation. Covington left the Kansas City schools amid turmoil and without the support of the school board or parents in the district.

Likewise, the Social Justice League, a group of students from Mumford High School, an EAA school, have made their concerns public, only to be rebuffed by EAA administration. A couple months ago, they wrote to their principal and DPS Emergency Manager Roy Roberts — who is Chancellor Covington’s boss — to share their concerns about “math illiteracy, large classroom size, inadequate number of counselors, safety in the schools and failure of the administration to protect special needs students.”

In a newspaper guest column, Chancellor Covington dismissed them as a “small group” whose concerns were alleviated by meeting with the principal on several occasions and receiving his advice of forming a student council in order to involve students who do not share their views. This tin-eared response illustrates how out of touch EAA leadership is — this is not an issue of whether the cafeteria should serve pizza or hot dogs on any given day. When a group of students feels aggrieved with respect to the education they are receiving, and the treatment of their fellow students by staff and administrators, it is a serious issue, not one to be swept under the rug as Chancellor Covington advocates.

Alternatives exist

As I mentioned, I was heavily involved in passing real education reform measures several years ago. The legislation we implemented would be able to identify and turn around failing schools without creating an entirely new bureaucracy that is easily susceptible to the kinds of issues outlined above. Additionally, our reforms included benchmarks and accountability — something Republicans in the legislature have failed to give to the EAA, despite advocacy and the offering of amendments by other legislators.

When Republicans took over both chambers of the legislature and the Governor’s office in January 2011, they quickly did away with our reforms in favor of an unfettered, corporate-driven education scheme that focuses less on educational outcomes and more on profits. The bipartisan plan we crafted would have worked had it not been dismantled in favor of right-wing ideological policies.

Conclusion

Secretary Duncan: First of all, thank you for your time and deliberate consideration of the contents of this letter. I write with the simple goal of bringing these grievous concerns to your attention.

You do not have to take my word for it, though. Others who have visited the EAA schools, sans the dog-and-pony show the Governor and his administration trot out each time they invite legislators and other officials on a tour, will confirm these reports. My friend and colleague, Rep. Ellen Cogen Lipton has done her own research and will agree. Wayne State University Associate Professor of Curriculum Studies Thomas Pedroni has analyzed the testing schemes at depth, and will concur regarding their flaws. I am confident the students of the Social Justice League would be happy to speak with you directly.

As FOIA requests continue to pile up, as evidence of ineffectiveness, malfeasance and ineptness builds and as legal challenges begin to take form, it is my hope that you and President Barack Obama will seriously consider the ramifications of giving the appearance of tacitly supporting this failed experiment.

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