Detroit, Eastern Michigan University, Education — December 4, 2015 at 1:29 pm

BOMBSHELL! Michigan’s Education Achievement Authority in serious trouble, moves to turn at least some schools over to charters (updated)


By all appearances, the wheels appear to have all but completely come off the catastrophe that is Michigan’s Education Achievement Authority, Gov. Rick Snyder’s failed experiment on Detroit school children. Following the departure-under-scandal of former EAA Chancellor John Covington, the new Chancellor Veronica Conforme set out to poach students from neighboring districts using deceptive letters sent to the community. She was later forced to apologize.

Then the district was found to be cheating teachers out of incentive pay for which they had received millions of dollars in federal funding.

Last month it was revealed that a $1.7 million training contract had been awarded to the eighth-highest scoring company – the School Empowerment Network – a company formed explicitly to obtain the contract, with no other customers, and run by former colleagues of Veronica Conforme.

Around the same time, Kenyetta Wilbourn-Snapp, a former principal in the EAA’s Mumford High School, admitted to tax evasion and taking a $58,000 bribe following an FBI investigation.

In the past couple of days, things at the EAA have gone from tragically bad to tragically worse. First, ACLU journalist Curt Guyette revealed the story of Joshua Tolbert, a story that shows an astonishing (and continuing) (and typical) lack of transparency at the EAA:

Tolbert, who has a doctorate in education, is researching the push-out of special education students from metro Detroit schools.

As part of that effort, Tolbert filed a FOIA request on Feb. 20 seeking information related to a company called Futures Education of Michigan, which was hired by the EAA to essentially run the new district’s special-education program.

First, the EAA failed to provide any formal response to the request, a violation of the law. That transgression was compounded when the district, despite repeated promises to produce documents, again violated the law by refusing to turn over any information related to Tolbert’s request.

After two months of getting the runaround from the EAA, Tolbert turned to the ACLU of Michigan for help. The group filed a lawsuit on his behalf on April 23.

According to the lawsuit, Tolbert and the ACLU are seeking to determine the validity of “anecdotal evidence … that children with disabilities attend Detroit Public Schools at a higher rate than other schools because they are being turned away from various charter schools, EAA schools, and districts adjacent to Detroit.”

Guyette reports that EAA administrators considered communications between themselves and Futures Education of Michigan to be confidential communications between the district and its legal counsel and is thus covered by “attorney-client privilege,” a ludicrous claim that would be laughable if it weren’t hiding something more sinister. According to the piece, Chancellor Conforme “is still fighting to keep secret what exactly what went wrong with what was clearly a trouble-filled deal with Futures.”

The day after Guyette’s piece was published, a group of State Representatives from Detroit accused the EAA and Detroit Public Schools of colluding to move 16 more schools into the EAA (which currently has 15, three of which are charters) and then turning them all into charter schools:

The state of Michigan is putting out requests for proposals to find a company or companies to take over Education Achievement Authority (EAA) schools.

According to two state representatives, 31 schools are involved under this proposal. This is not Gov. Rick Snyder’s plan. The Detroit Delegation in Lansing said they feel completely back-doored by this. […]

State Representatives Brian Banks and Sherry Gay-Dagnogo, who head up the Detroit Delegation in the House, are furious about what’s being floated.

“We were told that the 15 schools from the EAA would be charterized, and then 16 additional schools are going to be charterized for a total of 31. This is from someone who is privy to the information and they also forwarded the documents to us. So we believe this was a blatant attempt to just circumvent the process. All these things have been done behind (closed doors),” said Banks.

The documents, which you can read HERE and HERE, don’t mention how many schools are involved or that the EAA is being expanded. However, it is clear that the EAA IS working to turn over at least some of its schools to charter operators, something that education activists have feared all along. In fact, in a piece I published in January of 2014 titled “Is the Education Achievement Authority intentionally designed to fail???”, I wrote this:

A more cynical view, however, is that those pushing this failed educational model actually want it to fail. As outrageous as that sounds, it’s hard not to believe it when otherwise intelligent people defend it so vociferously and want to expand it to even more schools. These are most often the same people who are pushing for more and more charter schools in our state, charter schools that are mostly run by for-profit companies that enrich themselves with tax dollars targeted toward educating our children.

Spokespersons for Gov. Snyder, DPS, and the EAA are denying the accusations.

Finally, and perhaps most damning, I have received a leaked document that was intended to be presented to the Eastern Michigan University Board of Regents at their meeting next Tuesday. At that meeting, a review of their interlocal agreement with the EAA was slated to be an action item. However, faculty members of the College of Education have since been told by administrators that it will NOT be an action item (though it is still on the agenda.) It was placed on the agenda because one year ago when the Regents decided to continuing working with the EAA against the wishes of large numbers of faculty, staff, and students, they set out four different parameters on which the EAA administration was tasked to improve in the following year:

  • A stronger partnership is forged between Eastern Michigan University and the EAA
  • Demonstrated student achievement and progress in EAA schools
  • Fiscal accountability
  • Complete transparency of all activities, including prompt and appropriate responses to requests made under the Freedom of Information Act

The stunning document that I received – which you can read HERE – was written by members of the EMU Faculty Senate Executive Board. In it, they analyze the EAA’s performance on all four parameters:

Following the approval of the Board of Regents’ motion, Faculty Senate Leadership proposed that Eastern Michigan University’s faculty provide their expertise to the Board of Regents in evaluating whether the EAA met the stipulations outlined in the December 2014 resolution detailed above; therefore, determining if it would be best to provide notice of EMU’s intent to withdrawal from the agreement effective June 30, 2016. The following document identifies: the data that have been shared with faculty at EMU to date, relevant materials that are missing, an initial evaluation, and recommendations. The report is organized utilizing the four stipulations described above.

What they found in their analysis is a complete failure to improve in all four areas. Missed opportunities to partner with EMU on crucial training and development programs. A well-documented failure to be fiscally responsible and accountable. A profound lack of transparency as demonstrated by the Joshua Tolbert situation. And, most egregiously, not only are EAA students not improving academically, they are, in fact, getting measurably worse. Here are a couple of charts from the report that spell it out:

It is time for this debacle, this cruel and unjustifiable failure of the children of Detroit, to come to an end. EMU needs to walk away from the EAA and condemn it. Those who have exploited their positions of power within the EAA for personal gain should go to jail. And, most importantly, the state of Michigan, which has had control over DPS since 1999, must pay off the debts it has accumulated on behalf of the school district and return control over the education of Detroit students – including the EAA – to locally-elected officials.

The EAA is an unmitigated failure rife with corruption and incompetence, the exact things it was supposed to have fixed. Turning the schools over to charters is not the answer. Continued state control is not the answer. More experimentation is not the answer. The answer, as some of us have said all along, is a solid and meaningful investment in Detroit schools.

I’ll finish with something I wrote almost two years ago:

When you look at these schools and the issues of poverty and crime and lack of parent involvement that accompanies the poor resources and crumbling infrastructure that they are facing, it’s clear that any attempt to reverse the downward spiral and give the students a chance for the same quality education that they would receive in nearly any other Michigan school needs to be BIG. If you were considering designing such a program, some specific elements come immediately to mind:

  • You’d hire the best teachers you could find and compensate them well for the difficult task they face.
  • You’d tap into the best educational models we have; proven methods based on data and science.
  • You’d refurbish the schools to make them into safe, welcoming environments that kids enjoy being part of.
  • You’d make class sizes small so that the kids were getting the best possible instruction possible.
  • You’d equip the schools with the most cutting edge education technology.
  • You’d build in flexibility so that the needs of ALL students were being met; special education/special needs kids, gifted kids, and everyone in between.
  • You’d fund these schools so that, instead of constantly chasing money from federal grants and corporations (that may have ulterior motives), administrators could focus on empowering students, teachers, parents, and all other participants in the school to achieve at the highest possible level.

These are the things that you would imagine the EAA would include. In order to bring these schools back to the level where they should be after so many decades of failure at all levels, this is the sort of “Educational Surge” that is required to remedy the situation and to do so quickly so that not one more cohort of students is lost.

Unfortunately, the EAA has done essentially NONE of this.

UPDATE: Rosita Hush on Twitter points out that the EAA put out an RFP for charters and turnaround specialists earlier this year, as well. You can read that RFP HERE. I don’t know if they hired any of the companies submitting proposals. The difference this time around appears to be that they are now working with the DPS from which they were splintered in 2011.