Opinion | Outgoing Michigan lawmakers should keep hands off our schools

john austin

John Austin directs the Michigan Economic Center and previously served as president of the State Board of Education.

Dec. 21: That's a wrap! What bills passed, died in Michigan lame duck for the ages
Related: See what Michigan lame-duck bills we're tracking

Gretchen Whitmer was elected with a mandate to fix not only the “damn roads” but also to right the ship of our sinking education system. Michigan voters deserve that she have that chance.

Serving on the State Board of Education for 16 years, I am well aware of the opportunities and challenges facing Michigan’s public education system. One of those challenges is to better align state accountability to ensure the governor, legislature, the independently elected State Board of Education and its appointed superintendent are all pulling oars in the same direction – a direction that will lift our flagging K-12 education system.

Related: Republican bills would snatch power over Michigan schools from Democrats

Gov. Rick Snyder’s 21st Century Education Commission, on which I also served, explored a variety of ways our school governance system could be improved. Legislation that outgoing Republican lawmakers are trying hard to ram through the lame duck session is decidedly not one of them.

Not only is the A-F school accountability system bad on the merits, as my former State Board colleague Casandra Ulbrich notes here, the provision to create a commission with new powers over education - appointed by an outgoing Governor and Legislature - is a transparent attempt to keep control over schools in the hands of Republican lawmakers from the political “grave.”

This is the same group that has presided over the decline of Michigan’s once-vaunted public education system by cutting support, while unleashing a Pandora’s box of unfettered largely for-profit new school “choices” to compete for students and dollars among a declining school-age population.

The abrupt closure earlier this fall of the Detroit Delta Preparatory Academy for Social Justice charter school, leaving hundreds of students and parents high and dry, is just one symptom, along with falling test scores, of the systemic failure of Michigan’s education “strategy” over the past eight years. 

If one felt a commission to better manage accountability for Michigan public schools was important, at least center that accountability with the incoming governor.

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Kevin Grand
Tue, 12/11/2018 - 7:16am

Since Mr. Austin has a problem with using a metric on schools that anyone can understand, he'll have an even harder time swaying public support for the rest of what he proposes.

Tue, 12/11/2018 - 10:45am

A simplistic response in defense of a simplistic metric. God forbid we have nuance

Kevin Grand
Tue, 12/11/2018 - 5:34pm

School District #1 has received a grade of "A" via the State of Michigan's educational guidelines.

School District #2 has received a grade of "F" via the State of Michigan's educational guidelines.

Which school district do you think that any responsible parent would want to send their child/children to?

You either succeed or fail.

"Nuance" is a pathetic excuse given out from those loathe to accept any real accountability for their actions.

Douglas Trevethan
Tue, 12/11/2018 - 8:43am

Agreed. The fascists are strangling us.

Tue, 12/11/2018 - 9:22am

Keep your hands off. You did nothing before so stop trying to do something now.

MaryBeth Robertson
Tue, 12/11/2018 - 9:24am

While accountability for quality education is desirable, a simplistic A-F grading system will not fix education. Children bring challenges far beyond just learning "ABC" and 1+1=2. They bring their experiences in dysfunctional families. They bring learning challenges not easily addressed in a classroom of 25 (or more students). They bring discipline issues not readily resolved by classroom rules. Schools may be failing but it isn't because teachers and local administrators aren't trying to meet the vast array of needs children bring to school each day.

Tue, 12/11/2018 - 12:21pm

I believe putting metal detectors on school buildings like they do government buildings, would help tremendously. It's hard to believe that it hasn't been done already,.

Tue, 12/11/2018 - 2:37pm

So there should be no requirements, no expectations, no evaluation, no sanctions, no consequences, no discipline, and no accountability. After all some of these kids were disadvantaged. Public schools won't even have to spend time coming up with excuses! The tax payers and parents will love it and it will be a boon for private and charter schools. Phil Powers is right,the MI B o Ed is a waste of everything, time to get rid of it!

Eek Fawns
Tue, 12/11/2018 - 6:47pm

Hmmm... let’s see... John Austin joined the State Board of Education in 2000, and Michigan’s schools began their decline in 2003. Coincidence? Mr. Austin then spent a whopping sixteen years on the board, six of them as chair. What did he accomplish in all that time? That’s two years longer than even the longest-serving Republican currently in Lansing has spent in the Legislature. Perhaps, when it comes to identifying blame for Michigan’s education quality, Mr. Austin should turn the finger he’s pointing around onto himself.

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