School Takeover is Key to Mich. Education Reform
Michigan's aggressive plan to turn around and perhaps take over the worst of its public schools will be a key piece of the state's effort to win up to $400 million in federal stimulus money for education.
Mike Flanagan, the state's superintendent of public instruction, said Thursday that the takeover legislation will be a key part of the state's application for the Obama administration's Race to the Top competition.
About $4 billion from the federal Recovery Act will be set aside for states that do the most to turn around struggling schools and improve student performance. It's possible that only a dozen or fewer states will win money in the first phase of the competition, but Flanagan says the education legislation passed last week by the Michigan Legislature is important regardless of whether it brings in more cash.
"It's definitely going to help the application," Flanagan said. "But it's big-time reform, whether we get Race to the Top or not. This changes the game for the better."
State applications for the federal cash are due in mid-January. Michigan's developing application contains several elements of the measures that soon will be signed into law by Gov. Jennifer Granholm.
Charter school operators with a good track record will be allowed to open more Michigan schools. Teacher evaluations will be linked to student test scores. It'll be easier to fire bad teachers and hire new instructors from varied professional backgrounds.
But the most dramatic change in state education law will start with the listing of the state's lowest-achieving schools by Sept. 1.
The list will include roughly 170 schools. While most will likely be in cities such as Detroit and Grand Rapids, suburban and rural schools also could be included. Scores on state standardized tests and graduation rates will be part of the criteria along with still-developing federal guidelines.
Each school on the list will be placed under the supervision of a yet-to-be-hired state school reform officer. Once schools are on the list, their school boards will have 90 days to submit a turnaround plan to the state.
The school reform officer will get most heavily involved with the schools whose turnaround plans are rejected. He or she would act much like a superintendent and school board, making decisions related to both academics and finances.
"We're going to take this very seriously and do something about them," Flanagan said of the schools with chronically low student achievement and high dropout rates. "It's been decades, same schools."
Teachers' unions are concerned that collective bargaining rights will be undermined in the schools taken over by the state.
"We have come to agreement with legislative leaders on every necessary aspect of Race to the Top, including alternative certification, using student data as a component in employee evaluation and measures to turn around struggling schools," Michigan Education Association and AFT-Michigan said in a statement last week. "However, the absolutely unnecessary language in the bills stripping educators of their voice in helping students in those struggling schools is something we cannot and will not support."
The unions are urging the Legislature to "fix" the bills.
Flanagan said he is open to changes that might address labor union concerns while maintaining the integrity of the reform process.
The state has started to receive feedback from school districts related to its Race to the Top efforts. Oxford Community Schools signed the first memorandum of understanding this week, signifying intent to comply with the state's broad reform plan.
Flanagan hopes to get hundreds of similar commitments from districts to show the federal government that Michigan schools support the program's goals.
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