On Jan. 29, Michigan
Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Watkins resigned, ending an unusually
public and acrimonious conflict between Gov. Jennifer Granholm and the state
Board of Education over Watkins’ leadership.
Debate over Watkins’ ability
to head the Department of Education marked the final weeks of his tenure. The
governor’s office stated in the Detroit Free Press on Jan. 19 that Watkins was
"not providing effective leadership in one of the most critical departments in
state government." In the same article, Gov. Granholm claimed, "(Watkins) needs
to resign for the good of the state board, for the good of public education."
She said her disapproval of Watkins’ work had been known to him for months.
However, Booth Newspapers
reported on Jan. 12 that Granholm had given Watkins a letter of praise for a
July (2004) performance evaluation. The state board, which had hired Watkins,
had recently awarded him a job evaluation of "A-."
Among the events which
transpired from July 2004 to January 2005 was a difference of opinion between
Watkins and the Michigan Education Association. According to a letter sent to
Watkins from the MEA on Oct. 4, 2004, Watkins chose not to withhold funds from a
Bay Mills Community College charter school
after having done so in April 2003 due to questions of legality. The MEA was
opposed to this charter school receiving state funds because the union contended
that Bay Mills charters could not be considered public schools.
The October MEA letter to
Watkins states: "As the Superintendent of Public Instruction you have a legal
duty to ensure that academies are legally authorized and are adequately
supervised by a public body … If you feel you need more statutory authority, and
more funding, we will support your efforts to achieve such within the
The Department of Education
had previously been given the green light to disburse funds to Bay Mills
charters after Gov. Granholm’s legal division determined it was indeed legal to
In December, another point of
contention between Watkins and the MEA developed when Watkins released a
controversial school-funding report offering ideas about reforms to Michigan’s
education system. His untraditional approach to solving the "Structural Issues
Surrounding Michigan School Funding In the 21st Century" may have raised some
In his report, Watkins
challenged some widely-held views within the education community: "A simple
solution would be to join the chorus that simply asks for more tax revenue to
fund our schools. … However, solely funding the current system will not yield
the results our children need and deserve." The report goes on to say: "Boldness
and candor are required to identify the challenges as well as to make
recommendations that address them. The primary postulate, that additional
revenue without unprecedented change in the fundamental structure of our public
education system is not enough, is not widely agreed to by the education
populace" (Watkins’ emphasis).
Watkins’ troubles were not
limited to disagreements with the MEA or fallout from the December report. He
attracted attention with comments published in a Jan. 2 Grand Rapids Press story
on charter schools. In the article, MEA Communications Director Margaret Trimer-Hartley
stated that she believed the progress of charter schools was inconclusive, and
that she was concerned about stories of charter schools discouraging special
education students from enrolling. Watkins responded bluntly: "Does some of it
happen? Sure. But let’s take a look at traditional schools. Some of them will
complain about losing 300 (students) to a charter, but you won’t hear a peep out
of them when 3,000 (dropouts) go to the streets."
On Jan. 11, four weeks after
the Watkins report was released and nine days after his Grand Rapids Press
comments, "Dozens of educators and parents packed a state board meeting to
praise Watkins for his ‘call to action,’" reported Booth Newspapers Lansing
Bureau. The governor offered a tepid endorsement of Watkins on the same day,
refusing to say anything other than him being a "valued member" of her cabinet.
The board itself was split in
their support for Watkins. Board Vice President John Austin, D-Ann Arbor, told
Gongwer News Service: "I personally for several years thought we could do
better, somebody who was more effective. We now have four of us who see a long
pattern of things we would have wanted Tom to have done differently." But, Board
President Kathleen Strauss, one of Austin’s fellow Democrats, never wavered in
her support of Watkins, according to Gongwer: "She saw Mr. Watkins as both a
cheerleader for education and a leader for the department. And she said she
still had backing on that from other members of the board."
The board, however, voted to
table an extension to Watkins’ contract.
Speculation over the reasons
for Watkins’ fall from grace was widespread. Writing for the Oakland Press on
Jan. 14, Lansing political commentator Tim Skubick offered one explanation for
Granholm’s insistence that Watkins leave his post, "Rightly or wrongly, here’s
the knock on Watkins: He is great with the sound bite about moving children up
the education ladder, but his depth of expertise is the proverbial mile long and
a silly millimeter deep."
On Jan. 19, the Free Press
reported that Granholm education adviser Chuck Wilbur said, "Watkins has wrongly
suggested that Granholm was perturbed by (the) Dec. 6 report on the plight of
schools." Wilbur continued, "It has to do with the way he managed the
Watkins responded to
criticisms against him on Jan. 20 in a letter to the governor. Claiming he was
"inappropriately criticized," Watkins wrote that he was "surprised and
perplexed" at Granholm’s turn against him: "Neither you nor any of your staff
have shared these concerns with me personally." Watkins asserted that all of
Granholm’s comments toward him had been positive, the only exception being in
regard to a diagram in Watkins’ December report. He stated, "You said ‘you were
furious’ regarding the … funding illustration … that shows that almost 2/3s of
new dollars invested in our schools will be used to cover pension and health
Watkins also urged Granholm to
"direct members of your staff to cease bullying members of the statewide-elected
state Board of Education to sell out their conviction and their support of me."
Highlighting further alleged
injustices, Watkins hinted at a possible MEA connection though he did not give
names. "I have been told that you have asked special interest groups to
discredit me and convince my supporters on the State Board to fire me, as a
‘personal favor,’" he wrote.
Watkins maintained that having
been successful in private business and in managing the multi-million dollar
Department of Mental Health, his administrative and leadership skills could not
be called into question.
As for the MEA’s continuing
opposition to the Bay Mills charter schools, the union has filed a lawsuit
against the superintendent of public instruction, the state Board of Education,
and the state treasurer to stop the funding of Bay Mills charter schools. The
suit, dated February 3, 2005, was filed days after Watkins’ resignation. Stated
explicitly in the complaint is an account of another confrontation between the
MEA and Watkins over Bay Mills, occurring only one month after Watkins’ office
received the original letter in October. In this subsequent contact, Watkins
continued to hold his ground, again deciding not to withhold funds.
The state Board of Education
has chosen Jeremy Hughes, Michigan’s chief academic officer, to be acting
superintendent until a new permanent superintendent can be appointed. A set of
selection criteria has been developed by the board, and they have decided to
accept applications until April 8th.