Snyder adviser, educator pull no punches before large audience at education summit

Oakland Schools Superintendent Vickie Markavitch and gubernatorial adviser Bill Rustem sat next to one another at a panel to discuss education issues Tuesday, but their views on education reform are still far apart – a distance that could play out in upcoming debates at the State Capitol over school legislation.

A testy exchange over the Educational Achievement Authority district in Detroit at “The Future of Education” summit sponsored by the Center for Michigan illustrated the different viewpoints held by Michigan’s education establishment and the policy-makers who would revamp its operations.

The summit, attended by nearly 500, was held to analyze the findings of the Center’s new report, “The Public’s Agenda for Public Education,” which presented the results of a year-long community engagement effort.

Rustem had just finished detailing the state’s efforts to help 15 “consistently low-achieving” schools in the Detroit Public Schools via the EAA, an interlocal agreement between Eastern Michigan University and the DPS. Those 15 had been “on the lowest-performing list for a decade,” and the strategy to help them improve was clear and open, based on a model adopted in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina disrupted the city.

“Those who argue this is a conspiracy to take over public schools aren’t telling the truth,” Rustem said. “Tell me an alternative, and we’ll deal with it. We can continue to write those kids off, or we can do something about it.”

Markavitch agreed Michigan residents “have to do something about the worst schools. But I don’t know if the EAA is the model that will work.”

From there, the two points of view, between educators and reformers, continued to assert themselves, and diverge.

Markavitch and John Austin, president of the state Board of Education, spoke in favor of better funding, more support and a careful approach to increasing school choice. Rustem, along with Lansing attorney Peter Ruddell and Jamey Fitzpatrick, president of Michigan Virtual University, advocated for reforms debated in the Legislature last year and which are expected to come up again soon.

The EAA bill died in last year’s lame-duck legislative session. Rustem complained that even with clear-cut goals and a top limit of 50 schools in the EAA district, it still faced opposition from educational interests. Markavitch countered that the original bill was far more wide-reaching when it was introduced, and the pushback was to be expected.

What's next

The Center for Michigan is hosting another summit, this one in Kalamazoo on Feb. 7. For more details and to reserve a space at the free event, click here.

“The EAA should not be controversial,” said Austin. “My hopes are that it will work.”

After that early skirmish, the two sides moved on to the idea of increasing school choice, with Fitzpatrick and Ruddell advocating new funding models and more places for students to spend their per-pupil dollars, while Markavitch and Austin pleaded for a go-slow approach.

“Public education is changing and will continue to change at a very rapid pace,” said Fitzpatrick. “Would we be proactive or reactive?”

Ruddell made the same argument in favor of unbundling school funding to meet Gov. Rick Snyder’s policy guidance that education be “any time, any place, any way, any pace.”

“How do we change the financing structure to make sure each student gets the best education on their individual path?” Ruddell asked. “Education isn’t a place or a destination, it’s a service. That’s part of the paradigm shift we’re trying to employ.”

Boost to early childhood discussed

Other panels dealt with the need for more early-childhood education and support for teachers, two areas receiving strong support from participants in more than 250 community meetings held by the Center, along with large-sample polls, which together involved more than 7,500 diverse Michigan residents.

Sen. Roger Kahn, R-Saginaw Township, said he was advocating for at least $130 million in increased funding for the state’s Great Start Readiness Program, preschool classes for children from low- and moderate-income families. Gov. Rick Snyder and House Speaker Jase Bolger also have pledged support for an increase.

Susan Broman, director of the state’s Office of Great Start, said the money would go to free up more preschool slots in individual school districts, as well as other improvements to the program. She said longitudinal studies show that children who go to preschool are more likely to graduate on time and enjoy more academic success in general.

“If I were building a house, would I skimp on the foundation?” she said.

Paul Hillegonds, senior vice president at DTE Energy, echoed the case for early investment in education.

“The reality is, one of the most important investments we can make in the state, in terms of economic development, is early childhood education,” he said. “If we’re going to attract and retain talent, we must make this investment.”

The third panel was on teacher preparation, support and accountability. Deborah Ball, dean of the School of Education at the University of Michigan and chair of the Michigan Council for Educator Effectiveness, said the United States lags behind other countries in how it trains and supports its 3.5 million teachers.

In the U.S., we’ve developed a myth that “the way to learn to teach is figuring it out on your own,” she said. “Imagine if surgeons or airplane pilots learned on their own. And these are our children.”

Staff Writer Nancy Nall Derringer has been a writer, editor and teacher in Metro Detroit for seven years, and was a co-founder and editor of, an early experiment in hyperlocal journalism. Before that, she worked for 20 years in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where she won numerous state and national awards for her work as a columnist for The News-Sentinel.

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Jeffrey L Salisbury
Tue, 01/29/2013 - 5:10pm
Education is a service? No. Dry cleaning is a service. Carpet cleaning is a service. Washing windows is a service. Lawn care is a service. Snow removal is a service. But education is not a service. Not by a long shot. "What we have here is... failure to communicate."
Tue, 01/29/2013 - 5:37pm
It seems to me that two of the most important things we can do to educate our children properly is (1) start them younger in pre-school programs and (2) keep classes small enough so that teachers can spend more time with individual children. So, it looks like we need more money for our most valuable asset--the children who will one day be our leaders. We tend to think only of today; not the future.
Peter Bennett
Wed, 01/30/2013 - 3:29pm
I was drawn into to this article by the words, 'tasty exchange', only to find but one quote from the educator on the panel. I got an earful of the Governor's position though. Is this really about a debate?
Dave Powers
Thu, 01/31/2013 - 10:50am
It seems to me that the reality of all the debate and angst going on in education, state and federal government, the business world, religion, etc. is that IMPERFECT people are involved in all of them. We have yet to come across the leader in any one of those settings who can provide AN ABSOLUTE GUARANTEE that they and their ideas, policies, practices, etc. can once and for all correct what is "wrong" in any of their areas of concern. If that were possible, we would be falling all over ourselves to embrace and entrench these leaders and policies while elevating them to godlike status. The really scary part of all this is the absolute blind ego so many policy makers display in ramrodding their opinions and viewpoints to a status of "infallible truth" with total lack of awareness and/or care for the implications of executing the details of their ideas. The devil is always in the details, which unfortunately feeds these monster egos to believe it's the pions in the trenches who can't pull off these master plans leaving the policy makers to bask in the glory of their own self aggrandizement while accepting zero responsibility for the failure. And around and around we go!
Thu, 01/31/2013 - 1:21pm
"Any time, any place, blah, blah" may very well work for 9-12 education. But we are losing kids in Michigan in Pre-K through 8. The damage is already done before they reach high school. More money, smaller classes, and things like all year school for kids at risk are the key elements here. Most of the "any time, any place" advocates are involved in attempts to deliver low touch, high margin "education" on a private for-profit basis long enough to make a pile of money, before it is shown not to work, while victimizing the kids and families on which they want to experiment. Let's focus first on giving everyone the best foundation. Then we can experiment with tailored plans for older students who are ready for options of that nature.
Charles Richards
Thu, 01/31/2013 - 2:53pm
Jarret Skorup, writing in the MichCapConf of January 29, 2013, said of a study done by HHS that " The study found that while Head Start had a positive impact on the preschool children attended, "there was little evidence of systematic differences in children’s elementary school experiences through 3rd grade." He goes on to say, "Criticisms of the program span the political specturm: Liberal TIME Magazine columnist, Joe Klein, wrote a few years ago, “It is now 45 years later. We spend more than $7 billion providing Head Start to nearly 1 million children each year. And finally there is indisputable evidence about the program's effectiveness, provided by the Department of Health and Human Services: Head Start simply does not work.” Robert Samuelson, writing in the Washington Post, said ". Maybe more preschool would help. Yet, the share of 3- and 4-year-olds in preschool has rocketed from 11 percent in 1965 to 53 percent in 2008. " Georgia and Oklahoma send all their kids to preschool without notable results.