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Published in Print: September 16, 1998, as Engler Pitches New Plan for Detroit School Takeovers

Engler Pitches New Plan for Detroit School Takeovers

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In a campaign-season flourish, Gov. John Engler of Michigan is proposing that parents and teachers in Detroit be given the option of taking over schools that aren't working.

"This is not a state takeover. This is local control," said Maureen McNulty, the press secretary for the Republican incumbent's re-election campaign. The idea is to give the local school community control of hiring and firing teachers or managing supplies for a school if the central administration isn't doing a good job, she said.

The governor unveiled the "Freedom Schools" plan last week. It would allow parents or teachers and principals in Detroit to take over a school and secede from the district with a two-thirds majority vote.

Gov. John Engler

Almost immediately, critics started skewering the concept, which would have to be approved by the legislature.

Mr. Engler's idea is "pure politicking," said Irma Clark, the president of the Detroit school board. "It's too bad that he continues to use our babies for re-election purposes." She asserted that the governor's plan focuses on the 180,000-student school system because Mr. Engler particularly needs Detroit votes to be re-elected.

Ms. McNulty countered that the plan focuses on Detroit schools because they are doing so poorly.

Details Still Sketchy

The Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor described Mr. Engler's proposal as "ludicrous."

"Two-thirds of the parents will take over the schools and do what?" said Rep. James Agee, who is the running mate of gubernatorial candidate Geoffrey N. Fieger. Mr. Agee, the former superintendent of the 63,000-student Muskegon school district, accused Mr. Engler of not supporting local control in the past. In 1993, Mr. Engler signed a larger education bill that required site-based management and enhanced local control. But, Mr. Agee added, the governor supported a subsequent education package that eliminated the mandate.

When Mr. Engler proposed his idea in a Sept. 8 speech to a business association, he offered no details on how a local takeover would work, and his staff confirmed that he hasn't yet worked those out.

Mr. Engler summed up the plan simply in a news release: "No parent should have to send their child to a school that doesn't work, a school that is unsafe, or a school where success is considered simply showing up."

And, he added, every signature on a petition for a takeover would represent "a vote for freedom--freedom from violence, freedom from red tape, and freedom from the status quo."

For such a plan to be effective, however, the devil is in the details, said Michael F. Addonizio, an associate professor of education administration at Wayne State University in Detroit.

Giving parents and teachers the option of taking over a school with a two-thirds majority vote raises the question of who will consider the desires of the parent or teacher who doesn't vote for a takeover, he said.

In addition, Mr. Addonizio said, he wonders if the governor has considered how schools that have seceded from the central administration would provide services such as special education.

"Where would a new 'freedom school' get the business services, management, and support that are typically provided by the central administration?" he said.

Michigan already has the authority by law to take over an individual school.

The state has not exercised that option even though it could with the short list of Michigan schools that have not been accredited in three years, according to Mr. Addonizio.

Last year, Mr. Engler proposed legislation that would have given the state the power to take over a whole district. The legislature did not support the idea.

Vol. 18, Issue 2, Page 16

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