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Mich. Schools Get Reprieve on Sanctions

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Michigan politicians are known for talking tough on school accountability. Last year, Gov. John Engler even proposed taking over low-performing districts.

But Mr. Engler joined other state leaders recently in postponing action against 21 schools that face penalties for low test scores.

As other states take steps to make their schools more accountable for student performance, some say that Michigan illustrates a growing interest in using kid gloves, rather than an iron fist, to improve troubled schools.

"I think reality is starting to catch up to rhetoric," said Burnie Bond, the assistant director of educational issues for the American Federation of Teachers. "Thankfully, the parties involved are starting to sit down and talk about what works."

That notion, however, does not sit well with everyone. A get-tough approach has fans in Michigan and elsewhere.

"When is enough enough?" asked Jim Sandy, the director of Michigan Business Leaders For Educational Excellence. "When will action be taken to get these kids into a quality education system?"

Mr. Sandy's group represents some of the state's largest companies and promotes systemic, K-12 school reform.

Weighing Options

Michigan changed its school code in 1993 to give unaccredited schools three years to raise their scores high enough on state standardized tests to reach one of two accreditation levels.

Earlier this month, the state education department released a list of 21 schools that have failed to meet that requirement. Under state law, state schools chief Arthur E. Ellis is required to penalize those schools.

Mr. Ellis, who was appointed by the Republican governor, has a host of options at his disposal. He could close a school and let its students choose where they wanted to attend, reduce its state aid by 5 percent, handpick new administrators, or put a university in charge.

Mr. Ellis has said that he will wait until June to levy sanctions, which means they will not be in place until the 1998-99 school year. He has also said he does not favor fiscal sanctions.

"This is not something that will be a shoot-from-the-hip thing," said Michael R. Williamson, the assistant state superintendent of education. "I don't know what a 5 percent cut in state aid really does to change the behavior in that building."

Gov. John Engler

Gov. Engler, who is up for re-election this year and whose takeover proposal was defeated last year in the legislature, is solidly behind Mr. Ellis. ("Engler Pushes for Takeover of Failing Mich. Schools," Feb. 5, 1997, and "Mich. Legislators Kill State-Takeover Plan Backed by Governor," Aug. 6, 1997.)

"We are not prepared at this point to impose harsh penalties," Mr. Engler's spokesman, John Truscott, said this month. He added that there was nothing inconsistent about the governor's position.

"The tone last year was really a wake-up call," Mr. Truscott said. "It was not [Mr. Engler's] goal to take over a district. His goal was to get them to improve."

Maybe so, but that does not satisfy observers such as Mr. Sandy. He said he sees another reason for the reluctance to act.

"No one wants to be perceived as being mean-spirited," he said. "Because that's how it would be portrayed in an election year."

Changing Strategy?

Michigan would not be alone if it chose not to exercise its strictest sanctions.

Of the 23 states that had the legal authority to take over schools and districts based on test scores, just eight of them had actually done so as of last year, according to an October 1997 report by the AFT.

Besides, there's no guarantee of how--or whether--such drastic measures will improve schools.

"I think states know that early interventions didn't have the kind of achievement gains that were expected," said Christine Johnson, the director of urban initiatives for the Education Commission of the States, an education policy clearinghouse in Denver. "State takeovers are a mixed bag."

Accountability promises to dominate this year's legislative sessions in several states.

Lawmakers in Delaware, Colorado, and South Carolina, for example, are already talking about new sanctions and rewards for schools.

But Michigan's wait-and-see attitude may represent a more mature approach to sanctions that goes beyond rhetorical threats, some observers suggest.

"They've come a long way in understanding that these are not simple problems," said John F. Jennings, the director of the Washington-based Center on Education Policy and a longtime Democratic congressional aide. "The question now is will Governor Engler and the legislature walk away ... or concentrate on long-term investments such as improving teachers?"

Ms. Johnson said there is another question that state leaders must answer.

"What is your tolerance for failure?" she said. "Is it 30 percent, or 50 percent, or what?"

Brief Reprieve

In Michigan, officials in the districts where the 21 unaccredited schools are located support the Engler administration's tempered reaction.

"We do accept that we're accountable, but the direction should be toward more assistance than punishment," said Greg Byndrian, the spokesman for the Highland Park school system, which has one unaccredited school.

Highland Park is an enclave inside Detroit. Eighty percent of the district's 3,600 students qualify for free or reduced-price meals.

The unaccredited site is Cortland Elementary School, where 20 percent of the school's 4th graders scored at the "satisfactory" level on the 1996-97 state reading exam.

While that was double its satisfactory rate one year earlier, it was well below the 50 percent satisfactory rate needed for interim accreditation.

The 24,000-student Flint school system has eight unaccredited schools--the most of any district. The Detroit city schools, which had 11 unaccredited sites based on 1995-96 data, now has just two on that list.

Officials in Flint, which had 15 unaccredited schools in 1994, are holding intensive workshops and have formed improvement teams to help the troubled sites.

Lenore Croudy, an administrator in the district's learning-improvement-services department, agreed that more state collaboration, not punishment, is needed: "It would be nice if Mr. Ellis came and visited the schools and talked about what he'd do to make a difference."

In a sense, that is the state superintendent's plan. Mr. Ellis soon will review a state report on school improvement efforts, and then meet with local officials to talk about future action.

"The superintendent has set a tone that is focused on support and assistance," Mr. Williamson, the assistant schools chief, said. "He wants to find out what's successful rather than focus on failures and punishment."

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