INTERVIEW: Rep. Ellen Cogen Lipton on exposing violations of federal law by the Education Achievement Authority & how it’s failing our kids

“Why have to work through all of the messiness of this thing called ‘democracy’?”

I have written extensively about Michigan’s “Education Achievement Authority”. It as formed in September of 2012 as an interlocal agreement with Eastern Michigan University as a school district comprised of Michigan’s most failing schools. Originally it had 15 of Detroit’s worst schools. New legislation, House Bill 4369, introduced in the spring of this year by Republican Lisa Lyons, chair of the House Education Committee, would codify the EAA into state statute and it would contain the lowest-performing 5% of schools statewide. Based on grant applications filed by Dr. John Covington, the chancellor of the EAA, there would be as many as 60 schools in this “district for wayward schools” if the law passes.

The idea behind the EAA, of course, is that the state could do a better job of solving the problems of our worst-performing schools than the school districts that they are in have done and can do.

The state of Michigan website waxes eloquently about the EAA:

There are a number of features that make EAA schools unique:

Students have more time to learn. The EAA has a 7.5 hour school day – an hour longer than the traditional school day – and 210 days per school year – more than 30 additional days compared to most Michigan public schools. This means nearly 1,600 hours of instruction annually, some 50 percent more than Michigan’s requirement of just 1,098 hours. This expanded learning period puts EAA students on par with students in countries such as Japan, China and Singapore, enabling them to achieve on a level with their international competitors.

This grandiose language notwithstanding, not surprisingly, Dr. Covington quickly learned that he couldn’t run these schools at the level of funding that had been receiving from the state, either, and had to go outside for millions of dollars in federal and private grants.

Since it was formed, several Democrats in the legislature have been scrutinizing the EAA to ensure that, since they took over these schools, they were meeting the standards that are required by law for educating our kids. What has become increasingly apparent is that the administration of the EAA is in complete disarray. They have incredible discipline issues, special education kids are being summarily removed from the program in violation of state and federal law, and they appear to be manipulating testing to both make their outcomes look better than they are and also to justify taking over schools. Instead of being a model for educating kids, classroom instruction is being handled by inadequately trained graduates from the Teach for America program which gives “teachers” five weeks of training before sending them into the classroom. Text books and other teaching methods appear to have been tossed aside in favor of software programs where the student interacts with a laptop computer rather than a teacher.

On the forefront of this effort to hold the EAA accountable and to make sure they are actually achieving the results they say they are before we take the system statewide is Representative Ellen Cogen Lipton (D-Huntington Woods). She has been repeatedly rebuffed by the administration of the EAA as well as the Department of Education, forcing her to pay several thousands of dollars out of her own pocket for Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) data that should have been provided to a three-time elected state legislator for the asking. She and Senator Hoon-Yung Hopgood (D-Taylor) have, through their FOIA requests, been given over 2,000 pages of information in what amounts to a data dump intended to overwhelm them with so much documentation that they couldn’t find the information that they are looking for. They have, however, begun the process of organizing the documents and have them on a searchable website called InsideTheEAA.com.

I sat down with Representative Lipton on Monday to talk about her efforts to expose the failures of the EAA.


Thanks for sitting down with me, Representative. Could we start with a bit of a timeline of how we got to where we are today with regard to the Education Achievement Authority and your involvement? I know that Lisa Lyons introduced House Bill 4369 in March and there were FOIA requests and other things since then.

Sure and, yes, it’s an interesting timeline. Actually, you need to go back a bit further to the lame duck session of the state legislature last fall. The legislation that would codify the EAA sprang from that. There were a lot of things happening during the lame duck and I think the thought was “we’ll just slide this in there and no one will notice.” Well, people DID notice and many of the people who had lead the fights back in the 90s against vouchers, those groups had never stopped being around, they were just “mothballed”. They collectively, in a phenomenal and rapid period of time, got activated, they brought in new people, and they were extremely instrumental in organizing, attending hearings, and creating a very specific public outcry against this thing called the EAA. It was not something that people were even following.

Well, they succeeded. We got through lame duck and the bill never passed out of committee. It was a great grassroots effort but, like a lot of grassroots efforts, you have to stay aware and vigilant. Of course, what happened, now we get to this session, the bill gets reintroduced with very few changes. Fundamentally it is to codify this state-run school district. The only difference, really, was the make-up of the majority party on the House Education Committee. Every person the Ed Committee from the majority party that had some reservations during the lame duck was suddenly not on the Ed Committee.

So, the bill is re-introduced and…

It gets a favorable reception.

Right.

I assume this was House Speaker Jase Bolger intentionally choosing different people for the committee who were favorable?

Absolutely. Absolutely. The Chair, Lisa Lyons, held two hearings. One was EAA Chancellor John Covington. He came and talked about how “Oh, we have to do something for the kids” and “At least we’re doing something”.

As the minority vice-chair, I asked a series of questions like, “Okay, if the EAA, at least in these 15 schools, is doing what you say they are doing, could you please show us the evidence? Because it doesn’t seem to be jiving with what we’re hearing.”

This is, after all, a “metrics driven” administration…

Right. They’re saying students are getting X amount of growth. Well, what we’re hearing from psychometricians from Wayne State University who have actually reviewed the test data, they’re telling us that that’s not possible because the same cohort of students that took the test in February were not those that took the test in October. There were too many structural deficiencies in the testing that made the data completely unusable. So why are you coming here telling us that this.

The message was, at least from my standpoint, that if you have discovered the “magic bullet” and you have found out how to build the better mousetrap, then you should at least be able to articulate what it is you have done.

That isn’t the case and the Democrats on the committee became very frustrated because the response from Dr. Covington was, “Just trust me. I’m telling you that this is what we’re going to do and this is the solution. And, not only do you have to trust me, but you now have to embed it in state statute.”

And this is a man whose Kansas City school district where he was the superintendent lost its accreditation just after he left to come to Michigan.

That is correct.

So he’s not exactly a man with a lot of veracity.

That’s absolutely correct.

So, this decision was just flying through the committee, although it had a bit more difficulty on the House floor where there were some arm twisting that had to take place. But, ultimately, it did pass the House. My thought was that I could either just say c’est la vie or I could at least start using the tools that were available to me to assemble the information that we were not able to get in the House – it was denied to us — and start sending it to the Senate.

That’s when I decided that if I’m asking for the information and he’s going to just say “trust me”, I don’t have to. So I used the Freedom of Information Act. I sent them a pretty extensive FOIA request. People have said since then, “Why should a state Representative have to use FOIA to get this sort of information…?”

Even some Republicans are saying that.

That is a very legitimate question. But there was a time sensitivity to that so I had to use the tools that I had available. I am a trial attorney by background so I looked at it in terms of “I want to look at the document. I don’t want to hear someone else’s rendition of the documents. I want to see the documents.”

So, I sent a fairly extensive FOIA request. After that I got the typical foot dragging. The “We don’t know what you want” and up and back. At one point I got on the phone with the FOIA coordinator over there and said, “Look, you can put up whatever hurdles you want — and you already have — okay? You charge me? No problem. I sent you $2,600. Personally. Now you’re saying you don’t know what I want and you’re having your attorneys look at it. You’re already in violation of the time limit.”

I got a call back saying, “You’ll get it in two days.”

It appears that what they did was to just do a data dump of information. I started going through and quickly realized that, wow, this is an organization that is a complete mess. On every front you could imagine. Financially. In terms of student safety. In terms of governance. It was just so apparent that they sort of went into this thinking they would just figure it out as they went along and no one will know.

I began going through the documents, and there were just so many of them, and there were so many people that wanted to see them that I decided to put it all up on my website. Then people complained that it was difficult to search. What I really wanted was eyes. That to me was the goal, to get as many people looking at it as I could, people with more experience, more knowledge than I have, to go through it. So we put it up on a second website InsideTheEAA.com and interfaced with a program so that people can keyword search the information and what have you.

Interestingly enough, during that process, there were a number of senators from both parties that approached me and said, “We’re going to take a close look at this, we’re not going to just rush it through like you guys did over in the House” which was a really, really welcome outcome.

In the meantime, you had the administration… I was at an event in Farmington Hills where the governor’s education person, Dennis Muchmore, said, “The Senate must get the EAA done!” And I’m thinking, “Wait a second. Get the EAA done? I mean you haven’t convinced anyone that it knows what it’s supposed to be doing!” You had this sort of strange dichotomy. On one hand administration was saying, “We have to codify the EAA! We have to codify the EAA!” On the other hand, you have the Senate saying, “We need to proceed with caution” which I think is probably the better way to go.

And Senator Hopgood filed a FOIA request as well, one that was separate from yours. How did that come about?

The bill was already over in the Senate and he’s my counterpart there. I told him, “This is the FOIA that I sent out” and I was already having a lot of problems with them. I suggested to him that there were some things that I felt I hadn’t covered. I thought that it would be a good idea if he picked up where I had left off. Which he did. He got really good information with regard to some of the disciplinary issues.

Because the bill was already over there, I thought it would be a good idea to have a spokesperson on the Senate side.

He seems to have really picked that ball up.

Yes and we’ve been sharing information in terms of the documents I got, just so we weren’t asking for duplicative things.

He got something like 880 documents in mid-August. How many did you get, you got more than that, right?

Yeah, I got about 1,700 pages.

It’s like drinking from a fire hose. I was on your site and it’s clear what they’ve done: they want to make it so that it’s impossible to analyze it, basically.

Yeah, that’s sort of the game plan. But there are certain threads that you can definitely glean from the documents. One thread that is abundantly clear is that the Broad Foundation, and specifically Eli Broad, was and still is intimately involved in the creation as well as the carrying out of the EAA.

How are they doing this?

The Broad Foundation, before the EAA opened, contributed something like $25 million and I believe they’ve made a subsequent grant to the EAA. It appears that he was instrumental in, if not the hiring of John Covington, he was certainly…

Who was a Broad Fellow, correct?

That’s right, a graduate of the Broad Superintendent’s Academy. There are some emails that suggest that the Broad Foundation put his name forward and there doesn’t seem to be any other names that you can find. There doesn’t seem to be this sort of extensive interview process. Some of the emails from that time are sort of, “This is the person that it’s going to be”.

What’s interesting is that, when you look at this in a broader context, in terms of what the Broad Foundation and the Gates Foundation and the Walton Foundation, to name a few, have done in other states, there are similarities. The money that they spend, it sort of follows a very interesting trend line. They will go into states with opportunities for state take over districts or where there is mayoral control. So, you’ll see the Broad Foundation in the Louisiana Recovery District, for example.

Challenged places, in other words.

Mmm hmm. In Philadelphia, places like that. Instead of — and, again, this is my opinion — instead of using their money to fund initiatives that we know work, you have them spending an enormous amount of money to create an infrastructure like an EAA — in Louisiana you have the Louisiana Recovery District — that aggregates control in a single person.

You begin to wonder, “Why is that?” and then you begin to look at the broader context of corporate reform in education, you see that that seems to be the M.O. Why have to work through all of the messiness of this thing called ‘democracy’? Oh, my heavens! School boards can be so insufferable! I mean, we actually have to work with our community!

You have this sense of this sort of disdain for the democratic process. Because, think about the local school board. That defines democracy for a lot of people, right? I mean, people will say to me, “I’m not political. I couldn’t care less about politics.” And I’ll ask them, “Do you care about your schools?” and they’ll say, “Why heavens yes, my children are in school.” “Do you go to school board meetings?” “Absolutely!”

So they are involved.

Absolutely. And the concept that these corporate “reformers” loathe is that very concept. So, how do you get around that? Well, first of all, you convince people that the current system is rotten. And you spend a lot of money to do that. And they can, right? These are organizations…

That are super-wealthy.

Super-wealthy is right. This is a level of money that has not been seen before in this country. So, they start spending a lot of money to buy the conversation. “Schools are failing.” It began with [President Ronald Reagan's National Commission on Excellence in Education report] “A Nation at Risk” and it hasn’t stopped since.

“Schools are failing. We’re in crisis. We’re losing our edge.” Whatever it is. But, when you actually look at the data, you realize, well, yeah, if you fudge the data and if you massage it, maybe it will come out that way. But, actually that’s not the case at all.

Now you have people in a panic. You couple that with some of the uglier parts of human nature like “white flight” and other things. You create all of these alternatives like charter schools, you uncap charters, and now you have systematically dismantled public education. And you can now come in and say, “Well, they can’t help themselves so we’re going to take over.” And that’s happened in Detroit.

It’s the “Shock Doctrine”, Naomi Klein’s “Shock Doctrine” where you freak people out and then take advantage of the crisis.

Right! And they’ve done it in Philadelphia. They’ve done it in Louisiana. You see it in Los Angeles. We are just one domino. What’s really interesting, Chris, is that, if you look outside of the state, there’s sort of an awakening of this sleeping giant, if you will, where bloggers and activists are starting to start to waken from this slumber. It’s amazing. The internet has been an amazing factor. You’ve got the “United Opt-Out” movement where parents are opting their kids out of standardize testing. Because remember: standardized tests have been a major component of the global corporate education reform movement, right? You create a single point. You’re able to manipulate and cut scores and, suddenly, you’ve got schools in New York where all of a sudden the entire state is failing.

So, in any event, I’m nervous for the future but I’m also hopeful that people are going to say, “Not on my watch.”

So, let’s talk about what you found in all of this myriad of over 2,000 pages of data dump. I found it interesting that they are giving different tests before and after to show that things are bad. That’s interesting.

Yup, yup. When you talk about testing, you have to first ask yourself what it is you’re testing. You have to have a good idea about what you’re trying to assess. Then, if you are trying to show a comparison over time, like student growth, you have to first make sure the test will, in fact show that. You don’t necessarily have to assess every student to get a snapshot. So, that’s the first thing.

Then, if you are going to show student growth, you have to be very certain that you use a consistent pretest and then have a very clear notion of what you’re teaching them. And then you have to have a post-test that is identical to the pretest. Otherwise, your data is garbage.

You almost don’t have to say it’s so obvious, right?! You don’t have to be a social scientist or an educator to figure that out!

But then you realize … have you talked to Dr. Tom Pedroni?

Yes, we have talked and he has published on my website. He’s been a very fierce advocate.

A fierce advocate. He went and interviewed the company Scantron and they stated that it’s their opinion that the testing conditions were inappropriate. There were rampant computer failures. There’s no way of knowing if the teachers were answering the questions for the students. They have no way of know if even the same cohort of students were being tested. Because that’s another thing: if you’ve got one group of students taking the pre-test and you’ve got a different group of students taking the post-test, you may have an identical post- and pre-test, but if you have different kids, again, the test data is garbage. So you’ve got all of that going on…

But they are using that data to justify the takeover of the schools by the EAA.

Exactly. You’re reading it and you’re thinking, “This can’t be possible. This cannot possibly be going on” and then you read a press release and it’s like they either never took the time to look at their own results or they just sprinkled fairy dust over it and say, “We say things are getting better so, therefore, things are getting better.” At that point you begin to realize that this isn’t about educating students. This is about some sort of massive PR machine or something.

Then I started looking at the handling of special education students and that created, for me… You know, it’s an assessment about where you stand as a society, how you handle your most vulnerable population. What I began learning turns your blood cold.

It’s heartbreaking.

It IS heartbreaking. At first you think, “This can’t possibly be what’s happening” and then you go down there and you talk to students and parents. You start hearing from them because they read about it in news reports and things like that and you realize that it IS happening. So, that became another avenue of exploration.

It’s very disturbing. I don’t think they’re doing at all what they are supposed to be doing. I think they are breaking the law. But when they are confronted or the Department of Education is confronted, they say there is nothing they can do about it.

You actually filed a complaint recently, right?

Right. So, in terms of the timeline, we have all of this documentation from the FOIAs and we started going through what Senator Hopgood’s documents showed and some other people, I invited them in and I said, hey, this has got to be a group effort. Through this, there was one data point that was inexplicable to me and it was that, when you compare the number of special education students that had Individual Education Plans (IEPs) while they were in Detroit Public Schools and then look at the schools that were taken over, there is a drop off of several hundred students with IEPs.

This was one of the questions I asked in committee. I said, “How do you account for that?” I mean, there’s got to be some reason for it. And the answer was, “We retested them”. And they went on to say that it was their opinion that, number one, Detroit schools were over counting their special ed students when all of our data shows us that, in fact, they are UNDER counting or that the special ed population is even higher than what is being reported. And, number two, they suggested their way of teaching kids, this ‘student-centered learning’, somehow makes it so these kids don’t need special education services or some strange explanation like that. “Well, we have a different way of teaching kids.”

None of which is legal. I read the federal statute, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). You can, if there’s a child with an IEP, there’s a set way of modifying the IEP or changing the IEP. It’s fairly labor intensive.

I would assume it involves parental involvement…

Parental involvement. You have to convene what’s called an IEP committee and the IEP committee must have the parents, it must have a teacher, and it also has to have someone who is like a school psychologist or social worker. It’s fairly involved.

Which is what you would hope for.

Right. And that’s what the law says. One of the things I asked in the FOIA request was, you say your retested the kids. Okay, I’m not aware of that being a reason for rewriting an IEP. But at least show me the documentation that you formed IEP committees for each of these students because it was a LOT of students, hundreds. And all of the people in this field that I have spoken to tell me that there’s no way that that could have been done in just a few months.

I got no documents. So either you’re not going to give them to me or they don’t exist because you didn’t form the IEP committees. So, on that basis (and others), I filed a systemic complaint (pdf). Because, under the statute, anyone has the ability to do that. Any citizen who believes that the federal and state law has been systemically violated is able to file a complaint. So I did.

Who do you file that with? Is that the State Board of Education?

Under federal and state law you must file it with what’s called the “SEA”, the state education agency which in Michigan is the Department of Education. Now, what’s really interesting, what’s REALLY interesting… is that — have you seen a copy of the systemic complaint?

Yes, I have it right here, actually.

So, I filled out the form, I mean they give…

They spell it out.

They spell it out under MARs, the Michigan Administrative Rules governing education. You have to say what it is you are alleging and why and all of that. And then I get a response (pdf) back from the Department of Education saying that they are refusing to accept the complaint.

From a state legislator.

Yes! I said, “Look, you can dismiss a complaint. You can deny a complaint. But there is NO mechanism for you to refuse to accept a complaint. It doesn’t exist in law. It’s not like it’s a hot potato where you can simply say, “Oh, I’m not going to touch this!”

Who was it that denied it, which group?

It was through the Department of Education. First I got an email (pdf) back from Deputy Superintendent for Education Services Venessa Keesler and it was cc’ed to State Superintendent Michael Flanagan and Wendy Larvick. She said, “We’re working with you on your complaint”. Well, I didn’t really need any help with my complaint, it was already filed. The rest of the email said:

Outside of that formal complaint process, however, we want to assure you that we are reaching out to the EAA to help provide additional training and information to improve their processes in this area, ideally before the start of this next school year. The director of our Office of Special Education, Eleanor White, has been meeting with the individual hired by the EAA to work with special education throughout the year, and has recommended that we extend/expand our meetings to include building-level administrators to make sure all of those individuals are fully briefed on process, protocol and expectations regarding services for students with disabilities. Ensuring that the EAA has the support they need in order to provide high‐ quality special education services is important to MDE. We believe that working through multiple channels will help them improve their special education delivery and support strong outcomes for students with disabilities.

Keep in mind, this is in late July now. This came the day after I got the letter back saying they were not accepting my complaint. I wrote back (pdf) basically saying, you know, I submitted a state complaint and, as far as I’m concerned, you have an obligation under the statute to conduct your investigation and the time clock is ticking, people!

[NOTE: please read Rep. Lipton's response (pdf) to the Department of Education. It. Is. Epic.]

Basically, they then contact me and say, “Let’s have a meeting.” So, I said, okay, that’s fine. So, they bring in Harvalee Santos who is the assistant director for compliance, Teri Johnson who is the ISD liaison, and Cheryl Diamond who is the Supervisor of Program Accountability in the Office of Special Education. She’s Special Education Director Eleanor White’s aide, and then the legislative liaison.

I basically said to them, as far I’m concerned, you have an obligation to investigate. That’s what the law says. And their response was, you know, “How do we know you’re telling the truth?” These are the words she used. She’s like, “You could be some crackpot.

They said this to a member of the state House of Representatives?

Yeah. “How do we know that you’re telling the truth?”

And I said, well, number one, it requires the complainant to sign it. You can’t file these anonymously. And you then have an obligation to investigate. There is no requirement under the statute that a systemic complainant [someone who is filing a complaint about a systemic problem affecting multiple individuals] must prove their case. You allege what’s happening and, if there’s sufficient evidence, then you must appoint an investigator. Then you can decide whether it has merit or what have you. And they just refused, they said no. They said you have to tell us how you know what you know. I said, well, you know, it’s in the FOIA documents.

Then she says to me, “We don’t have to do your work for you.” And I said, “Well, I guess there’s nothing more to say here at this point.”

My intention is to look at filing a lawsuit because the statute affords me that opportunity if the state education agency (SEA) will not investigate and will not comply with the law.

So you have to SUE the Department of Education?

That seems to be where we’re at.

Wow. That’s profound.

They were saying, “You have to tell us how you know what you know.” Well, it’s set forth in the documents and I’ve also had conversations with parents and teachers and so forth.

“Well you have to give me names.” Well, no, the law doesn’t require that. There are many parents who are scared. There are teachers who are petrified. I’ve promised that I will not disclose their names. So, I kept saying to them you have to show me where in the law it requires me to prove my case at the point of the complaint. And they kept saying, well, that’s our position.

So, that defines and agency working in an arbitrary and capricious way. That is the definition of arbitrary and capricious. I basically said to them, “You know what my rights are and if I believe that you’re acting in an arbitrary and capricious manner…” and they said, “Well, are you threatening to sue us?”

I was, like, I’m not threatening anything it’s just that you have to investigate!

One thing I learned was really unbelievable. Once I realized that I wasn’t getting anywhere on the systemic complaint, I went through this email with them and I wanted to know exactly what they’re doing and why they’re doing it and what have you. What they told me was that, when the EAA opened it’s doors, the EAA contracted with Michigan Futures, which you can see in the documents, to hire special ed teachers and paraprofessionals. What these women in the Department of Education told me was that they believed that, since Michigan Futures had been hired, nothing else had to be done.

Wow. No oversight required, I guess?

Right? Or a plan! The state and federal statutes require each district to participate in a plan. You actually have to have, every Intermediate School District (ISD) has a plan. So, she says to me, “Well, the EAA isn’t an ISD.” I said, I don’t care what they are. I don’t care what you call them. They are this “thing”. It’s just semantics. Just because you call it, I mean you could call it a banana but the law still requires that this “thing”, this banana has to have a plan for special education. I said, “You just washed your hands of it”. You’re telling me that because Michigan Futures was hired to hire special ed teachers, that that constituted the plan? And she said, “Well, we realized that maybe we thought that they could do more than they really could do so now we’re helping them write a plan.”

NOW you’re writing the plan? You’re a year into it and NOW you’re working with them to write a plan?

So, now let’s talk about what we learned about discipline because they’re all integrally connected. You see this all over the country, particularly with charters, where they will have a “zero tolerance” policy. Sounds good. “We don’t tolerate anything. Zero tolerance.”

Well, let’s see how it works in actuality. At the EAA, you now have all these students that were getting services when they were in the Detroit Public Schools (DPS), and now they’re in the EAA, their school has been taken over, and now they’re not getting services. We don’t know why but we know that they’re not getting services.

Now, the law says that if there is a disciplinary situation — a child bursts out, what have you — and that disciplinary event is a manifestation of their special needs, the discipline you give them has to take in to account their Individual Education Plan (IEP).

In other words, that’s why they are in special in the first place, because they’re having that particular problem.

That’s right. So, even if there’s an issue with violence or what have you, if it’s a manifestation of their disability, the law says that discipline must be coordinated with the IEP.

Now you have a child that was getting services when they were at DPS and now they’re not getting services. They still have special needs and now they have an event, a behavioral event. If their IEP has been rewritten, if they have been denied their IEP, they now fall under the “zero tolerance” policy.

So they get expelled.

And they get expelled. And we found that you have students, I spoke to a number of parents where they were told to come pick up their child and they put them out onto the street. For 180 days or more. And the parents asked, “What am I supposed to do? What am I supposed to do?” And this happened over and over and over again.

Convenient don’t you think?

Absolutely. It’s much easier when you don’t have to deal with the hard cases.

They have this way of saying, and charters are notorious at this, “We welcome everyone! We welcome everyone.” Well, actually, no we really don’t. Read the fine print. If you have special education needs maybe we tell you that this isn’t the right place for you. Or, if you actually end up coming, we’ll figure out a way to move you out.

You see these inordinately high numbers of disciplinary situations. There were 5,000 events. We’re talking about a district of roughly 10,000 students. That’s very, very high. Something is not right in the state of Denmark.

Which they are supposed to be fixing with their non-plan.

If you read the brochures, they’ve got it all figured out. Just don’t look at the man behind the curtain.

One of the other things that I wanted to ask you about is about your website. I mean your website literally is like drinking from a fire hose and it’s not a website where anyone can just go and learn by just looking at it. I mean you really have to know what you’re looking at and dig into it. What are you hoping to accomplish with that and what types of folks could potentially assist in what you’re doing and how could they do that?

If I had more time, I would like to make it more accessible. In the meantime, I’ve been trying to get as much of the documentation up there as I could and in a way that people could search. One of the things that I’m hoping to do, at least on the systemic complaint front, is, now that I know that the Department is not going to investigate, I think my next step is to file a lawsuit. And, hopefully, through the discovery process, put more information up.

But, in terms of assistance, I sort of envision sort of an open source type of environment.

Sort of a crowdsharing scenario.

Right. Where people that know about specific issues can say “This is what this means” or “Did you see that this is what happened and that it has this effect?”

The problem, I have to say, is that the traditional media has been very reluctant. And when I say the traditional media I’m not talking about bloggers but what I would call traditional newspapers and journalists… it doesn’t really seem to exist in Michigan. People say, “They’ll be interested in that story”. But then, when I send them the information, it’s like crickets.

You’ve done all of the research in a lot of ways for them. You’ve actually said, “Hey, here ya go. Knock yourself out!” They don’t even have to file the FOIA. You’ve already done it for them!

That’s very curious. Then I’ll see a story about, oh, they’re giving away free backpacks at the EAA and I’m thinking…

THAT’S the story? That’s the easy story. It came from a press release.

Well, you know, in other states, what’s interesting is that, if you look at other situations that are analogous to the EAA in other states, there are investigative journalists who are following the money, if you will. That’s what uncovered, for example, the cheating scandal in Georgia. I have yet to find that person who is willing to… Maybe they’re out there, I don’t know. Maybe they’re looking at the data.

It’s the kind of thing I would be doing if I didn’t have a full time job.

Exactly. But, I have to say, bloggers like yourself have done an amazing job of at least getting the word out to those who are interested so I continue to put out information. I believe that people who act with that type of arrogance, the people in charge of the EAA, unless it’s unilateral takeover, they’re not satisfied. My hope is that they’ll overreach.

To the point where people really do start to push back and holding them accountable?

Right.

How about the State Board of Education? They seem to have taken a hands off approach to this.

You know, it’s interesting. They actually invited Covington to come and answer some of their questions over the summer and he refused to show up! He told them, you’re not…

You’re not the boss of me?!

Yeah, basically. You’re not the boss of me. You don’t supervise me. I answer to the governor. So, he cancelled the first time when they wanted to talk about special education and he didn’t show up. More recently, I think it was a few weeks ago, they invited him to again to answer some questions which, this time, he did. But, even then, he made it clear that he was doing it, sort of as a favor, not because he believed he had to because, again, he didn’t acknowledge them as being, basically, his employer.

So he rebuffed the State Board of Education just like he and the Department of Education rebuffed you?

Exactly.

So, one last question. I have heard that you paid the legal bills for Brooke Harris who was fired by the EAA for what appears to be retaliation for speaking out against some of what they are doing or not doing when it comes to educating kids. Is that true?

Well, yes. I just wanted to be sure that she had proper legal representation when she went to her pre-termination meeting so I helped her out with that.

Fantastic. Thanks so much.


After our interview, I walked across the street from her office with Rep. Lipton and her staff where she held a press conference in the state Capitol with other Democrats on the Michigan House Democrats’ School Reform Task Force. On the way over, she told me that it’s not enough for her and other Democrats to simply criticize what the administration is doing with regard education reform in the Michigan, including the EAA. They must have answers of their own. That was the intent of the Task Force’s work over the past year and their education plan, released at the press conference, is a sharp contrast to the approach taken by the Snyder administration. You can read more about the Dems’ education plan HERE.

[Crappy iPhone photo by Chris Savage | Eclectablog]

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