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EAA should not be expanded statewide until questions are answered

Jack Lessenberry

Three years ago, when I first heard about Governor Rick Snyder’s plans to create a special district for Detroit’s failing schools, I was enthusiastic.

I knew Detroit’s schools were a mess. I knew that the bureaucracy, the teacher’s union, and obstinate refusal to change were all part of the problem.

Something different was worth a try.

And so they invented and chartered the Education Achievement Authority, and gave it 15 of Detroit’s worst schools. The experiment began two years ago.

Nobody really expected miracles. At least nobody should have. These were schools with terrible records, and students with terribly disadvantaged backgrounds.

Since then, there have been possibly some small signs of improvement, at least as measured by test scores. Governor Snyder now wants to expand the EAA statewide. The state House of Representatives has passed legislation to do just that. The proposal is before the state Senate.

But it is clear that expanding the EAA now would be a colossal mistake.

The EAA is a total failure in terms of administration, honesty, transparency and staying within a budget.

Its chancellor, John Covington, probably needs to be fired immediately.

An investigation published in today’s Detroit News confirms rumors I’ve been hearing for a year.

Covington, who is driven around by a chauffeur in a special vehicle, charged nearly a quarter of a million dollars on district credit cards, largely so that he and his staff could jet around the country to a series of pricey conferences.

When they happened to be in town, they bought nice new furniture for their offices.

This happened, by the way, at a time when underpaid EAA teachers were being forced to use their own money to buy books and paper.

There is a heroine in all of this; my own state representative, Ellen Cogen Lipton, D-Huntington Woods. 

"What I began learning turns your blood cold. I think they are breaking the law." - Ellen Cogen Lipton

Lipton grew up in modest circumstances in Alabama, and was a science teacher herself before going to Harvard Law School. Last year, when she tried to get some basic information about the EAA, she was met with condescension, stonewalling and arrogance.

Eventually, after spending nearly $3,000 of her own money on Freedom of Information Act requests, Lipton told me she found many of the district’s claims just didn’t add up. She also has raised disturbing questions about the authority’s funding sources and hidden cost overruns.

She told one interviewer, “what I began learning turns your blood cold. I think they are breaking the law.”

Covington and other EAA officials seem to think they are accountable to nobody.

Despite all this, Governor Snyder is still bizarrely determined to expand this statewide.

State Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, R-Monroe, who is trying to shove the expansion through the state Senate, told the Detroit News that while it isn’t clear whether the EAA is successful, “to sit there and do nothing doesn’t seem like the right thing.”

Perhaps he’s never heard that insanity consists of doing the same thing over and over, and expecting a different result.

Today’s news and Ellen Lipton’s diligent investigations make it clear that, at the very least the Education Achievement Authority needs a complete overhaul and housecleaning before we should even think about expanding its reach.

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