Debate Heating Up Over Expansion Of State’s School “Turnaround” District

Dec 5, 2012

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 5%.  The idea has many public school officials pitted against each other.  

Detroit Denby High School Principal K.C. Wilbourn-Snapp.
Credit Jake Neher MPRN

(Sound: Teacher interacting with students)

This tenth-grade civics class at Denby High School in Detroit is researching Congressional powers using online sites like YouTube. For most of these students, it’s their second year at Denby.

But something is very different about their school this year. 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

“That’s an 11th grade class, and they are going through the application process for college,” she says.

She says the E-A-A 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 says 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," she explains. "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.”

Some parents of students in E-A-A schools say their kids are more engaged, teachers are more involved, and the school is safer. That’s why supporters of the E-A-A 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," he says. "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.”

Norton says parents don’t have a local elected school board to take concerns to. Instead, the schools are governed by state political appointees. Norton says 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 says it’s not because there’s anything wrong with the concept of the E-A-A.

“We need a state turnaround district that works," he says. "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.”

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 E-A-A would have the option to directly run the schools, create charter schools, or they could bring in private education companies to run them.

Austin says 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 says.

Critics of the plan also want more details about how schools can leave the E-A-A. 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.