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Who is watching the school "reformers"?

It's hard to talk about education these days without hearing the word "accountability" in nearly every sentence. Teachers should be accountable, administrators should be accountable, and school officials should be accountable. There is no question that the education of our children is a top priority and, yes, the people doing that job should be accountable.

Strange, then, that our state government's one and only strategy to address persistently struggling schools and districts would abandon accountability entirely. Children are already paying the price.

Under current law, local schools that are unable to "pull themselves up by their own bootstraps" would be tossed into a state "reform" district that would take the schools over - lock, stock and barrel. Governor Snyder and legislative leaders have made it one of their top priorities to enshrine in law their candidate to operate this reform district - the Education Achievement Authority. At the moment, the EAA is responsible for 15 schools in Detroit, but it has already signed a contract with state school Superintendent Michael Flanagan to operate the entire reform district on behalf of the state. Some 130 schools from around Michigan are at risk of being placed in the reform district, and Supt. Flanagan has already indicated that "many more than 10" schools deserve to be put in the EAA right away.

Isn't this accountability? Well, perhaps: certainly schools that are struggling to educate their students deserve focused attention and assistance. But how are the people taking over these schools held accountable?

Ironically, Sen. Phil Pavlov (R-St. Clair), chair of the Senate Education committee, helps to make our argument for us. In a story by Gongwer News Service, Sen. Pavlov responds to recent allegations of abuse and violence in EAA schools by saying that these matters should be left to building administrators "just like we do in the other schools in the state of Michigan." In this, we assume he is reflecting the thinking of many of his colleagues.

The trouble is that the EAA, or any state takeover bureaucracy, is not like other local schools in the state of Michigan. Community-governed public schools are led by locally-elected boards accountable to voters. Community members own their local schools and have a right to know what is going on and to be involved. Moreover, teachers, administrators and staff at local public schools are public servants whose first duty is to the community's children and not to follow the edicts of a central office located far away. School employees have protections so that they can speak out about things that might be going wrong without fear of retaliation.

None of this is the case in the EAA. As a state agency, the EAA would be governed by a board appointed by the Governor. Top administrators are answerable mostly to the Governor and that board, not to any local community. Building administrators, as the case of the EAA has so tragically shown, are more committed to the priorities of top leadership than they are to the needs of their school community. Teachers and other staff, as at-will employees typically with little experience, are afraid to speak out about problems for fear of administrative retaliation. All of this is already happening in the EAA.

But the EAA is simply an example of the inevitable danger of unaccountable state takeover systems. Our schools must be accountable to the communities they serve. Local elected officials need to be able to keep watch over the schools, and all school employees must view themselves as public servants first and employees second. And no parent, anywhere, wants a teacher or other staff member to be afraid to protect our children because they might lose their ability to support their own family.

There are better ways to help struggling schools, and they start with the idea that local stakeholders need to be responsible for hammering out their own solutions, with help and resources from outside. Michigan Parents for Schools has helped lead the development of just such a plan, recently introduced as legislation in Lansing. We can and should expect our school leaders to take steps to improve their schools, but ultimately they must serve the needs of the community and not the agenda of politicians far away.

For more on the "Parent Proposal to Assist Struggling Schools," please read our article on the MIPFS web site here: http://www.mipfs.org/node/206

For details about the proposed legislation, House Bill 5268, please see our article "A better way to help schools improve" here: http://www.mipfs.org/node/211

For more on what is happening in the EAA, please see our recent action alert "Stories from EAA get worse; state still wants to expand" here: http://www.mipfs.org/node/212 and the information at the Inside the EAA website here: http://insidetheeaa.com/

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