Plan To Allow Mich. School Takeovers Assailed

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Battle lines began hardening last week as Michigan geared up for what promises to be a bruising legislative fight over Gov. John Engler's proposal to allow the state to take over failing school districts.

Opposition to the proposal outlined by the Republican governor in his Jan. 28 State of the State Address took root in the House, where Democrats hold a majority. And political and education leaders in the state's urban school systems, most prominently Detroit, vowed to repel any efforts to invade their districts.

"I am very pleased that the governor has placed education at the top of his agenda, as I am very pleased that the president has," Irma Clark, the president of the Detroit school board, said last week. "We just don't believe a hostile takeover of our district is the answer."

Detroit Mayor Dennis W. Archer also wasted no time in taking shots at the idea.

"Whatever the problems in the Detroit public schools--and there are problems--we have not reached the point where Lansing can educate Detroit children better than Detroiters," Mr. Archer said in his State of the City Address late last month.

Although Michigan is among about two dozen states that permit state intervention in cases of so-called academic bankruptcy, its law covers only individual schools. The state also allows takeovers in cases of fiscal mismanagement, but that power has only been invoked in a municipality and never a school district.

Now the governor is arguing that it is time to broaden those laws to cover cases where school systems as a whole fail to attain acceptable achievement.

"Nothing happens when school districts fail year after year to meet even minimal performance standards," Gov. Engler said in his speech. "We have no choice. We must change the system." ("Engler Pushes for Takeover Of Failing Mich. Schools," Feb. 5, 1997.)

Confusion Over Criteria

Sen. Dan L. DeGrow, a Republican who plans to introduce the governor's proposal in the legislature this month, said last week that the bill's specifics were still in flux. He made clear, however, that it would depart in some of its details from what the governor laid out in his address.

Those fine points were a matter of great concern last week as districts scrambled to figure out whether they would be on the takeover hit list.

As the proposed conditions for triggering a takeover remained unclear, the state schools chief, Arthur E. Ellis, complicated matters by telling reporters late last month that state intervention in Detroit would be highly unlikely.

Last week, the governor made clear that despite Mr. Ellis' comments, Mr. Engler had no intention of shying away from the 175,000-student district. In fact, he indicated that the city remained a prime takeover candidate, along with the 6,300-student Benton Harbor district in the southwestern part of the state.

Mr. Ellis's remarks "did not reflect the governor's position," John T. Truscott, the governor's press secretary, said last week.

Weeks before unveiling his proposal, Gov. Engler signaled his intentions toward Detroit when he approached Mayor Archer about whether he would be interested in following the lead of Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley and assuming responsibility for the local school district.

Mr. Archer made clear he was not.

Still, the governor--aware of the city's antipathy to the idea of outsiders seizing the schools--has not given up. He was scheduled to meet this week with Mr. Archer, in part to revisit the issue of mayoral control, Mr. Truscott said.

Test Scores at Issue

Under the evolving legislation, the governor would have the option of appointing a trustee--including a mayor--to assume the powers of the local school board and superintendent in districts with chronically low test scores, Sen. DeGrow said.

Mr. Engler proposed that a district become eligible for takeover either if its dropout rate exceeds 25 percent or if at least 80 percent of its students fail the state's new high school proficiency test.

Mr. DeGrow said last week that his bill would probably include the proficiency scores as one factor. But he said it would rely more heavily on student scores over several years under the Michigan Educational Assessment Program.

As Mr. DeGrow refined the details, Rep. Sharon L. Gire, the Democratic chairwoman of the House education committee, said she would try to steer lawmakers toward a less punitive route.

"I'll give the governor credit for raising the issue of schools at risk, of kids where there's a real struggle to learn, of districts that are having real difficulty with academics," Ms. Gire said. "But I think the concept of just a complete takeover is not an acceptable approach."

Meanwhile, school officials in struggling districts around the state were hoping to show they were willing and able to put their houses in order.

Ongoing Efforts Cited

In Detroit, school officials cited their agreement last week to let a prominent civic group, New Detroit Inc., convene a panel of business and community experts to review the district's financial and administrative operations. The panel is scheduled to recommend improvements by May.

The school leaders also pointed to a $20 million challenge grant from the Annenberg Foundation announced last fall, which is being matched by $40 million from local philanthropies and the state and federal governments. The money is to be used over five years to support school-based efforts to improve achievement.

William Beckham, who is both the president of New Detroit Inc. and the chairman of the local agency set up to oversee the Annenberg effort, suggested that talk of a takeover would divert district leaders from focusing on educational improvement.

"Even the serious threat of it complicates matters," he said, "because we all become sidetracked into the politics of control."

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