EAA Bill Has Problems

But Grand Rapids carve-out not one of them

On Thursday, a bill to expand the statewide Education Achievement Authority passed the Michigan House, 57-53. This proposal, sponsored by Rep. Lisa Lyons, R-Alto, has drawn the ire of Michigan's educational establishment, as well as most Michigan Democrats.

Some opponents have criticized the bill by alleging that Rep. Lyons is putting in provisions to exempt Grand Rapids Public Schools, a district in the area she represents.

Oakland Schools Superintendent Vickie Markavitch has made this claim. So has Progress Michigan. Sen. Bert Johnson, D-Highland Park, is the latest to make this false accusation.

Sen. Johnson, in a column for The Detroit News, suggests that Grand Rapids is "carved out" of the EAA bill with a provision that could allow schools to be exempted from takeover if student academic performance at the school is improving at a faster rate than that of all Michigan schools. The EAA bill mentions the Northwest Evaluation Association's assessment as one way student academic improvement could be measured (other assessments are allowed under the bill).

Sen. Johnson seizes upon this provision as evidence that the Grand Rapids carve-out talking point is true. From his column:

The problem here is that only GRPS and a handful of other school districts use the Northwest Evaluation Association assessment. The rest use the Michigan Education Assessment Program (MEAP). 

This sentence contains a remarkable number of large inaccuracies. According to a 2012 report from the Michigan Department of Education, at least 150 Michigan school districts are using the NWEA assessment in one way or another.

Furthermore, all districts are required to use the MEAP. They do not choose between it and the NWEA. Many use the NWEA to supplement the information gathered from MEAP tests because the NWEA provides detailed results about student improvement.

Once again, there is no evidence that this bill has been crafted to exempt Grand Rapids. In reality, the exemption provisions are numerous and broad. True, some Grand Rapids schools might be exempted under these provisions. But the provisions could exempt almost any Michigan public school. 

The appealing aspect of the EAA bill is that it introduces accountability to a public education system that has operated with little during the past decades. Though charter public schools face closure if they are unsuccessful, this is very rare for conventional public school districts.

Thanks to increased educational opportunities for students throughout Michigan, schools that aren't serving their students now face some financial pressure. However, even this isn't enough to spur significant meaningful change at some of Michigan's worst schools. Sen. Johnson should know this — he represents Highland Park.

According to state data, as the Highland Park School District lost students, the district cut custodial staff and textbooks the most severely while preserving older teachers who, thanks to seniority, were more expensive to retain.

Despite the possibility that H.B. 4369 might bring more accountability to the public education system, it does have some shortcomings. The main problem with the EAA bill is that state bureaucrats are placed in charge of identifying failing schools and have broad discretion to choose whether to take over those schools.

Broadly, the EAA bill specifies that a school could be taken over by the state if it scores in the bottom 5 percent of Michigan schools for three years in a row. State education officials are the ones who determine that ranking system. Right now, 50 percent of a school's rank is determined by student test scores — not student growth. 

This can make all the difference for schools in low-income areas. Research has long shown that a student's socioeconomic background has a large impact on that student's performance on academic tests. Relying too much on absolute measures of performance could result in the EAA unnecessarily taking over schools that are helping students improve. Moreover, small changes in school ranking methodology could drastically change which schools are identified in the bottom 5 percent.

Sure, the EAA bill allows for exceptions. But state officials are largely in charge of determining how they are applied.

Proponents of this bill state that it's heartbreaking to see students trapped in failing schools, with no better alternative. It is, but H.B. 4369 is an attempt to fix a failing system with more bureaucracy.

Instead of creating another state education apparatus, legislators should trust parents to make the best educational decisions for their children and should work to free up more educational opportunities for Michigan students. This could be accomplished by expanding Schools of Choice. That would have an immediate effect, instead of requiring students to wait for schools to fail them repeatedly.

Legislators could also ease laws that limit the proliferation of online schools. This would enable more students trapped in rural schools to have access to other educational options.

Education reformers could also work to eliminate Michigan's prohibition on helping send students to private schools. It is a tragedy that students remain in failing public schools, while there are private schools that could serve their educational needs.


Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.