Michigan’s worst-performing schools are on notice: If their plans for improvement aren’t working, the state is ready to take action.
Gov. Rick Snyder today signed a controversial executive order transferring the state school reform office from the Michigan Department of Education to a state office that is directly under his control — the state Department of Technology, Management and Budget.
His motivation? “The governor feels like there needs to be a more proactive approach to addressing these most struggling schools, to benefit the kids that are in them,” said Sara Wurfel, spokeswoman for the governor.
And what will it mean to the schools? Their improvement plans will be analyzed to see if they’re working, and if they aren’t other options will be considered, Wurfel said. That could mean anything from closing the school to turning it into a charter to replacing the principal or replacing half the staff. It could also mean removing the schools from their districts and placing them in a state reform district.
The move affects 138 schools whose academic performance has them currently ranked in the bottom 5% of all schools statewide. State law requires those schools develop improvement plans, and the state reform office monitors those plans and holds the schools accountable.
The executive order is particularly targeted at 54 schools that have operated under an improvement plan for more than three years.
“Despite not achieving satisfactory outcomes, the current structure has neither implemented the rigorous supports and processes needed to create positive academic outcomes nor placed any of the identified low achieving schools” in the state reform district, the executive order says.
Snyder has no direct control over the Michigan Department of Education, which has housed the state reform office since it was created by the Legislature in 2009. The department is run by the soon-to-retire State Superintendent Mike Flanagan, who is hired by an elected State Board of Education. That eight-member board has a strong Democratic majority, unlike the Legislature and governor’s office, which is controlled by Republicans.
“The question is what is he going to do that’s different, that’s going to be better,” said Robert Floden, co-director of the Education Policy Center at Michigan State University. “It’s a challenge, considering the greatened financial circumstances, to get these schools to improve.”
The move was criticized immediately by a number of people, including the president of the State Board of Education, John Austin. Austin said he shared the governor’s impatience with the pace of reform, saying “effective action is long overdue.”
But he said moving it from the MDE to the DTMB “is unfortunate and counterproductive.”
“Moving the authority to a state agency with no educational abilities nor mandate will make it harder, not easier to improve educational outcomes for children in chronically failing schools,” Austin said.
He said it would also undermine the ability of the board, the governor’s office and the next state superintendent to work together.
Wurfel said the executive order was not intended to impact the ability of the three to work together. “The governor has made collaboration a priority.”
David Hecker, president of the American Federation of Teachers-Michigan, said the transfer ignores the voice of Michigan’s voters “by stripping the elected State Board of Education of its oversight authority,” of the reform office.
“Moving an office with an educational focus from the Department of Education, which understands education policy and has expertise, to a department focused on budgets is bad public policy,” Hecker said.
The move was applauded by Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, a charter school advocacy group.
“It’s important that we establish policies and take action to hold all schools accountable for their performance, and the governor’s decision is a step in that direction,” Quisenberry said. “Our students only have one shot at an education, so it’s vital that each of them is in a school that’s delivering a quality education.”
The timing of the move might impact the State Board’s efforts to replace Flanagan. It first came to light Wednesday as the board was choosing three finalists for the job, all of whom cited turning around the worst-performing schools as a key part of the job. The finalists are Vickie Markavitch, superintendent for Oakland Schools; Scott Menzel, superintendent for the Washtenaw Intermediate School District, and Brian Whiston, superintendent for Dearborn Public Schools.
“It seems to send a message from the governor — and I don’t know if this is the case — that he wasn’t confident in any of the three candidates being able to turn around,” the schools, said Don Wotruba, deputy director of the Michigan Association of School Boards.
Contact Lori Higgins: 313-222-6651, firstname.lastname@example.org or @LoriAHiggins