Who will control schools?

Localities feel their grip slip as states, feds hike mandates

This article originially appeared in the Detroit News on July 01, 2001 at http://detnews.com/2001/editorial/0107/01/a13-242162.htm.

By MARK HORNBECK / Detroit News Lansing Bureau

LIVONIA -- Daniel Lessard, a veteran school board member from Livonia, has experienced firsthand the encroachment of the state government on local schools' long-sacred turf in recent years.

And he doesn't like it.

"It seems the state believes that local control stops in Lansing," says Lessard, a former East Detroit school board member who is now secretary of the Livonia board. "The people in Lansing have made education political. But the thing is, our kids aren't political, and they should not be.

"I don't know that a legislator from, say, Escanaba can tell Livonia what the district needs or doesn't need, because they don't know the issues here."

Lessard is on the front lines in the white hot debate over who should run the local schools. He is among the considerable number of Michiganians who believe members of the local community are in the best spot to decide when their schools are failing and how to fix them.

On the other side, the state has a constitutional responsibility to oversee public schools and an ever-expanding stake in raising student achievement. And the federal government is becoming more involved by passing reform legislation that would require certain testing and accountability from states for the federal money they receive.

Both federal and state officials are growing increasingly weary of waiting for consistently struggling school districts to improve themselves.

"Michigan will be out of business as a state if kids don't achieve at world-class levels," says Michael Flanagan, executive director of the Michigan Association of School Administrators and a former school superintendent in Wayne and Oakland counties. "We don't want to become Mississippi. We want to be one of the states companies come to because of our talent pool."

Consider these signs that control of local schools is shifting to Lansing and even Washington:

* Expansion of the size and importance of the Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP), which is the state's crafty way of driving local curriculum without having to require it.

* Proposal A, passed in 1994, gave the state overriding control of the education purse strings. Pre-Prop A, the locals footed 80 percent of the bill for schools. Now the state pays a similar share of the $14 billion annual tab. As the old saying goes, he who pays the piper, calls the tune.

* The 1999 takeover of Detroit Public Schools, led by Gov. John Engler and Republican lawmakers. The local board was scrapped and replaced by a reform board that includes an appointee of the governor, who has veto power in key decisions.

* Failing schools legislation, recently passed by the GOP-dominated Senate, is designed to let the state decide when schools aren't measuring up, and then when and what kind of intervention is needed. The measure has not yet been taken up by the state House.

* Recently passed federal school reform bills require national reading and math tests in grades three through eight and allow parents in failing districts to use federal dollars to hire private tutors or pay for transportation to better public schools.

Explaining the need for federal reforms, U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige said: "It is uncomfortably clear that our system of elementary and secondary education is failing to do its job for far too many of our children."

Critics say they don't see the educational value in a federal requirement of a battery of tests, to which Paige responds: "The whole idea of jamming tests down people's throats represents such a distance from what we really mean by this. What we're talking about is providing timely information about students' progress, information that will allow us to know whether a child is learning or not."

In fact, education reform bills pending in Congress would give some states more flexibility in how they spend their federal funds in return for the required testing, says Kelly Amis, program director of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based education reform group.

"The pilot program would really treat the states more like charter schools," independent public schools that are accountable to a government agency, Amis says. "The federal government has these goals for education reform, but a state that has ideas on how to achieve those goals would have unprecedented flexibility to spend its federal funds."

Although most critics agree that student achievement needs to be measured, they question the federal government's role.

"They are talking about accountability to bureaucrats instead of to mom and dad." says Mary Gifford, who is director of educational leadership development at the Midland-based Mackinac Center for Public Policy. "All of this accountability information is only meaningful if they can then have additional options when they realize their schools has failed their child."

Under the proposed federal bills, students and families would have to wait three or more years before they could get assistance like tutoring.

Joseph Rezulli, professor of educational psychology at the University of Connecticut, says state and federal governments started interfering with local schools' business in a well-intentioned attempt to improve the achievement of low-income kids. The results, he says, have been disastrous.

"This nation has been singularly unsuccessful in raising achievement levels of poor kids. And when state and federal policy makers get into the act, the policies they're making spill over to all districts, not just urban districts like Detroit that are struggling," he says.

"Standardized tests seem to have become the only exchangeable currency on whether or not a school is good, according to these government policy makers. It's lobotomizing a lot of teachers and ruining some good local schools."

But Susan Shafer, spokesman for Engler, thinks the state is justified in becoming more involved.

"We have low-performing schools like Detroit where we had gone to the locals and said, 'Look, we're seeing problems and you need to deal with this,' " Shafer says. "Nothing happened. The determination was finally made if locals aren't going to do it, the state needed to step in.

"But that was an extreme situation. In a more general sense, education is very important to the state. It plays into statewide issues like economic development, and how we do on national and international levels. The state has a definite role to play in local education."

Senate Majority Leader Dan DeGrow, R-Port Huron, the leading education policy expert in the Legislature, disputes the notion that state infringement on local schools is an upward trend. It is more of a last-ditch response to consistently failing schools that can no longer be allowed to fail.

"We've tried a lot of things. They didn't work," DeGrow says.

Even the school accountability act recently passed by the Senate, which defines failing schools and prescribes remedies, relies mostly on the state simply lending a hand to help local schools, DeGrow says.

"Takeover is a last resort in the bill, and then it's by the local intermediate district," DeGrow notes.

As far as the MEAP tests molding local curriculum, DeGrow concedes that is probably happening. But he adds: "If the MEAP is an accurate assessment of what children should learn at certain points in their educational career, it's not a bad thing if it's driving curriculum."

Monty Neill, executive director of FairTest, a Massachusetts-based group working to stop the misuse of standardized testing, has a different view. He says true excellence in local schools comes from creative teaching and exams like the MEAP are blunting that, he says.

"You need a much richer array of information to find out whether students are learning," he says. "That comes from teachers in local schools. The state can't provide that."

The Mackinac Center's Gifford isn't as worried about state testing as she is about hamstringing local districts.

"The research shows us that in places where we restore local control and decentralize, we see an increase in student achievement," she says. Academic achievement has improved in areas with limited voucher programs, such as Cleveland and Milwaukee, and in states with extensive charter schools, such as Arizona, Gifford argues.

"One hundred twenty-five years of the command-and-control approach got us to the point where we need to re-examine things," Gifford says. She urges the state expand its charter schools and inter-county choice programs.

Flanagan of the Michigan Association of School Administrators argues that there is an important role for the state and accountability measures like the MEAP. But he says current signals from Lansing are "fuzzy" at best.

"We have the (school accountability act) in the Senate competing with the Department of Education's accreditation standards. And we have accreditation competing with the executive office's Standard & Poor's stuff," he says, referring to the Wall Street company hired by the state for $2 million a year to put out annual reports about local district performance.

"What are local schools to do? Which lead do we follow? It seems to me, everybody should get on the same page, define what it is they want and then let the local schools get there any way they want."

Justin King, executive director of the Michigan Association of School Boards, agrees.

"Local control is an institution in this state we want to preserve, and it is slipping away," he says. "We've never had a good public debate on how far the state should go, what the state should and should not provide.

"That's a worthy debate to have and the time is now."

You can reach Mark Hornbeck at (517) 371-3660 or mhornbeck@detnews.com. Richard Burr contributed to this story.