Michigan Governor Restructures Worst Schools, Signs Tenure Reforms

Published May 31, 2016

Just before signing four bills to restructure teacher tenure, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) announced an independent, state-monitored school district designed to rescue the state’s poorest-performing schools by restoring local control. 

The Education Achievement System, headed by Detroit Public Schools (DPS) Emergency Manager Roy Roberts, will encompass 34 schools in Detroit beginning in 2012. It will direct more money into classrooms by freeing principals from district demands and giving them more authority to make key decisions in consultation with teachers and parents.

Detroit students regularly post the worst scores in the nation among large urban school districts in reading, science, and math on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. 

“Under that system, we will free teachers and principals to make the best academic decisions for their students, and we will drive considerably more resources to the classroom so students can achieve academic success,” Roberts said in a statement. 

The district will eventually govern the lowest-performing 5 percent of Michigan schools, Wilbanks said.

Reforming Teacher Tenure
Snyder announced the emergency district in June. In July, he signed House Bills 4625, 4626, 4627, and 4628, which end “last in, first out” seniority rules in hiring and firing, extend from four years to five the time required for a K-12 teacher to earn tenure, and allow easier firing within the probationary teaching period.

“Making staffing decisions based on merit and performance encourages good teachers to keep doing what they are doing and helps ensure students receive the highest quality education,” Snyder said in a statement.

Teachers must also keep earning an “effective” rating to retain tenure, and districts must write to inform parents of children taught by a teacher rated “ineffective.” 

Freedom, Accountability
The proposed statewide emergency district is similar to those emerging in post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans, where an array of charter schools thrive under building-level management, said Michael Van Beek, director of education policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a pro-market think tank.

“Theoretically, it allows you to get excellent principals and give them the flexibility and freedom to run a school and to hold them accountable for their performance,” he said. “You can create a system where principals have incentives to create high-quality schools.” 

This sort of plan and its building-level focus are currently popular reform strategies, said Sarah Reckhow, an assistant professor of political science at Michigan State University who specializes in education reform.

“The Obama administration asked every state to focus on 5 percent of lowest-performing schools, and Snyder’s response to that is focusing on Detroit,” she said. “Increasing school-level decision-making and the authority of principals is popular now, but you have to increase accountability.” 

Snyder’s plan creates an advisory and an executive committee for the new district, both collaborations between the state, DPS, and Eastern Michigan University (EMU), said Roy Wilbanks, chair of EMU’s Board of Regents. 

At EMU, where the Board of Regents unanimously agreed to join the reform efforts, faculty leaders said they would not assist if doing so threatened teachers union contracts. So far, neither Snyder nor Roberts has clarified whether schools moving into the EAS would carry their teachers and union contracts with them, though Roberts has the authority as emergency manager to void union contracts. 

Expanding Charters
On July 13, Roberts announced the appointment of Doug Ross, a former U.S. Secretary of Labor, to head an expanded Charter Schools Office, increasing DPS-authorized charter schools from nine to 14 this fall. Ross is also the founder and CEO of the University Prep Charter schools, the highest-performing charters in the city of Detroit. 

“This kind of thing hasn’t been tried in Detroit before,” Van Beek said. “There’s been emergency financial managers, mayoral control, and other measures, but creating a system with school-level accountability and school-level resources and management has not been tried.” 

Turnaround plans aren’t new to Detroit. Detroit school board President Anthony Adams told the Detroit News he has “announcement fatigue” from hearing so many plans to fix the broken district. 

DPS has lost tens of thousands of students over the last decade as parents have moved away seeking educational choices for their children, limiting district funding and reform efforts. 

“For Detroit to turn around its financial situation and get a better school district, they need to stabilize enrollment,” Reckhow said. “It seems when parents have a choice they leave Detroit’s public schools.”

More Details Wanted
To combat the student exodus, Snyder and Roberts announced a scholarship plan for Detroit schools modeled after the successful “Kalamazoo Promise” to guarantee students who graduate from high school in Detroit will have the money to attend a two-year college. But few plan details—such as funding sources, parameters, or timeline—have been disclosed. 

“[The Promise] appears to keep parents in the district because they know if the student graduates in the district college will be paid for, and it would create an incentive for parents to stay in Detroit,” Van Beek said. 

Reckhow said too many details have been absent on the governor’s plan to assess its possible effects.

“There’s no clear path to implementation,” she said. “It seems that that legislature will have to be involved to work out the finances, and we have no idea what kind of groundwork Snyder has laid to make sure that will go forward.”