Detroit, Education — January 7, 2013 at 2:30 pm

Michigan’s failing schools chief finds he can’t educate kids at current funding levels


Hmmm…imagine that

One of my favorite up-and-coming bloggers, Amy Kerr Hardin, has a piece up right now at her site Democracy Tree that shows the incredible hypocrisy behind Michigan Republicans’ efforts to “reform” Michigan schools. The piece, “Education Achievement Authority — NOT Fiscally Responsible”, shows that John Covington, the Chancellor of the Education Achievement Authority of Michigan, has applied for and received millions of dollars in federal grants in order to fund the EAA’s efforts to fix Michigan’s poorest performing schools. It seems he has found that the current level of per-pupil funding is inadequate.

The EAA currently operates in the Detroit Public Schools (DPS) only but there are plans to expand it statewide. The grant Covington received is based on expanding it to as many as 60 schools. Still, 40 of the 55 public schools mentioned in the nearly 200-page the grant application (pdf) are DPS schools.

When you consider the multiple hurdles faced trying to educate kids in Detroit — poverty, crumbling infrastructure, and a school system that has been dysfunctional for years just for starters — expecting these schools to perform with their existing (and reduced) level of funding is a fantasy. Nevertheless, the state took charge of the DPS and installed a state-appointed Emergency Financial Manager, blaming their situation largely on mismanagement by the school administrators. Under the original EFM, Robert Bobb, the “expert” installed to solve their financial woes, the DPS deficit grew from $200 million to well over $320 million. During that time, state Republicans eviscerated state school funding, taking over a billion dollars out to pay for tax cuts for corporations.

The result is that schools across the state, just like Detroit, are woefully under-funded and failing, ripe for takeover by the state. The EAA is dealing with the worst-of-the-worst schools in terms of performance so it’s no surprise that Chancellor Covington is having to look elsewhere for funding. It’s a clear admission that the the state has completely left Detroit school kids out in the cold when it comes to fixing their schools.

A chief component of the grant is implementing a well-defined merit pay system for the teachers in the EAA. The grant calls for paying teachers with a three-tiered system in the first year:

<3 years experience in high-needs schools -- $50,000/year 3-5 years experience in high-needs schools -- $55,000/year 6+ years experience in high-needs schools -- $60,000/year After the first year, any newly hired teacher will be paid a flat rate regardless of their work history and teachers already in the system will see pay increased based on performance only. It's worth noting that all of these salaries are actually below the state average of $61,560 for the 2011-2012 school year. Because they are not unionized and working under what are arguably some of the most challenging teaching conditions in the country, it's going to be very interesting to see how Covington keeps the EAA engaged and productive. Nevertheless, according to the grant application, the EAA had far more applicants than teaching positions.

The new general pay structure is designed to halt the reward of unsatisfactory teachers and supports administrators in their role of evaluating staff. However, it has proven to be very attractive for the initial stages of implementation. Even with the end of tiered base pay popular in many school systems, EAA received 178 applications from throughout the United States for the 15 principal positions and 772 applicants from throughout the nation for the 200 teaching positions.

Covington is trying something new in Detroit, something that has been pushed by conservative school reformers like the Mackinac Center and the DeVos family for a long time. Merit based teacher pay is, in fact, required by a law signed by Governor Jennifer Granholm but its implementation has been irregular and been highly criticized. That said, there are arguments to be made against this type of pay system, one which is not widely used even in the private sector. What is clear is that innovations of this sort are not possible given the current reduced level of funding, thanks to Michigan Republicans and Governor Snyder. In order to innovate, our schools are having to go hat in hand to outside funding sources.

Republicans claim that privatizing our schools is necessary to stimulate innovation. Their push to make our public school systems a private, for-profit venture is predicated on the idea that our schools simply aren’t being competitive. Ironically (or not), at the same time they are reducing per-pupil funding, demonizing our educators as greedy parasites, and lowering the wages of teachers across the state.

Now their hypocrisy has become blatantly obvious when even their state-appointed Chancellor is admitting publicly that there isn’t enough money in the till to achieve actual competitive performance.

One more thing worth noting is that Governor Snyder’s choice of Covington is an odd one. Covington faked a conflict at his job as Superintendent of the Kansas City School District. The outrage he left behind is documented HERE. Not only that, shortly after he left, the Kansas City School District lost its accreditation for failing to meet educational standards. Not only that, the woman Covington hired as the new district’s Deputy Chancellor of Instructional Support and Educational Accountability, Maria Goodloe-Johnson, apparently left her former employer under a cloud of controversy after being fired, as well. Goodloe-Johnson passed away last month from cancer.

These are our state’s worst schools, serving our state’s most vulnerable kids. Although the Republicans are all too happy to assign the blame to poor administrators and their fiscal irresponsibility, it’s clear to any thinking person that their troubles go far beyond that. The Republican approach to educational funding rewards schools that are already doing well and punishes those struggling under multiple systemic problems, all the while reducing their funding and demanding “excellence or else”. To top it all off, they hired questionable people into the top leadership positions.

Given all of this, you’ll have to pardon those of us who think that Republicans in Michigan are deliberately out to destroy our state’s public school system.

Oh and, in case you missed it, it looks like school funding is about to be cut again. To the tune of $150 per student. From the latest Senate Fiscal Agency report (pdf):

A comparison of projected FY 2013-14 School Aid Fund current law revenue and a continuation of ongoing appropriations leads to a projected ending balance of a negative $235.4 million, which would equate to a per-pupil reduction of about $150.

Yeah, that’ll help…