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Debate heating up over expansion of state's school 'turnaround' district

Jake Neher

State lawmakers are mulling over a number of bills that would overhaul public education in Michigan.

One measure would expand a new state-run district meant to turn-around schools with test scores in the bottom five-percent.

The idea has many public school officials pitted against each other.

Schools like Detroit's Denby High school are at the center of the debate.

Last year, it was one of the lowest-performing schools in the Detroit Public Schools system. Now, it’s one of 15 Detroit schools the state oversees through its Education Achievement Authority.

KC Wilbourn has been the principal at Denby for four years. She says the EAA has meant more autonomy for her and other school administrators. For example, she says it used to take months to get funding approved for programs like professional development.

Sometimes she said it wouldn’t happen at all.

“This year, when we want something, if we had the funds in the budget, we’re able to get it paid for in less than 30 days. In some instances I've seen where it has occurred within 48 hours which is great when you working with vendors who are leery about doing business in Detroit,” Wilbourn said.

Credit Jake Neher / MPRN
K.C. Wilbourn-Snapp is the principal of Denby High.

Some parents of students in EAA schools say their kids are more engaged, teachers are more involved, and the school is safer. That’s why supporters of the EAA want Michigan lawmakers to expand the district statewide.

But some opponents of the legislation paint a very different picture of what’s happening in those schools.

Steve Norton is with the group Michigan Parents for Schools.

“Most of the people that I’m talking to had hopes that there would be some sort of wonderful change. And so far, they’re not only disappointed in what’s happening, but they’re also realizing that they’ve lost any kind of voice in what does happen at their schools,” said Norton

Norton said parents don’t have a local elected school board to take concerns to. Instead, the schools are governed by state political appointees. Norton said it’s a recipe for disaster.

It’s hard to know who to believe. That’s because neither side has any data to back up their claims. The reason: The Education Achievement Authority has only been operating for three months.

Many opponents say it should not be expanded until it’s proven to work. They say there’s too much at stake to experiment with students.

State Board of Education President John Austin also opposes the legislation. But he said it’s not because there’s anything wrong with the concept of the EAA.

“We need a state turnaround district that works. But it can’t be loaded up with new school creation mechanisms, super-authorizing ability anywhere in the state to create new charters apart from its mission of turning around failing schools,” Austin said.

He’s talking about language in the bills that would require districts to lease or sell school buildings to the state. Under the measure, the EAA would have the option to directly run the schools, create charter schools, or they could bring in private education companies to run them.


Austin said that would be a direct attack on Michigan’s public school system. He says bill supporters in the Legislature haven’t been willing to add any quality controls on new schools or charters.

“We don’t need more new bad schools, and we don’t need more new bad schools that take money away from our current schools and hurt their ability to perform,” he said.

Critics of the plan also want more details about how schools can leave the EAA. They say the legislation doesn’t include specifics about how the schools will be evaluated.

Governor Rick Snyder and state legislative leaders say the measure is a priority before the end of the year. They say students, parents, and schools need as much time as possible to prepare for any changes before next fall.

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