EMU considers ending its association with the EAA 

Buzzkill 2

The pressure is mounting.

As of earlier this week, more than 2,000 people had signed an online petition calling for Eastern Michigan University's Board of Regents to end the school's association with the Education Achievement Authority when the regents meet on Dec. 5.

The brainchild of Gov. Rick Snyder, the EAA was created in 2011 with the promise it would be used to turn around low-performing schools throughout Michigan. However, instead of covering the entire state, it has been limited to 15 schools in Detroit that are among the bottom 5 percent in terms of academic performance.

The EAA exists because two public bodies – EMU and Detroit Public Schools (DPS) – entered into what is known as an inter-local agreement. Unlike traditional public schools, which are overseen by democratically elected boards of education, the EAA is governed by an appointed board of directors. Two board members are appointed by DPS – which is under the control of an emergency manager appointed by Snyder; two are appointed by EMU's Board of Regents (a majority of whom are appointed by Snyder); and seven are appointed directly by the governor.

The absence of a democratically elected board is one of the reasons faculty, students, and alumni from EMU, as well as others not connected to the university, are asking regents to pull out of the agreement. According to the petition:

"...the faculty find the undermining of democratic processes represented in the creation of a district outside the purview of public decision-making and oversight to be in direct conflict with this university's mission and our legacy as a champion of public education. This violation of our principles is now beginning to affect our historically strong relationship with local schools."

That last line refers to the fact that some school districts refuse to accept student-teachers from EMU because of the university's connection to the EAA.

But that's not the only issue.

In September, Metro Times published an investigative report — based on emails obtained by the ACLU of Michigan — detailing significant problems with Buzz, the education software that is a key component of the EAA's emphasis on computer learning systems. The emails revealed that EAA students were used to help develop and test the software, which has been plagued by glitches. The emails also showed the extent to which EAA administrators were used to help market the software to other districts.

"As the Secretary of the Ferndale Board of Education I respectfully demand an end to the EAA," wrote Karen Twomey, who is also a high school teacher, when she added her name to the petition. "As a fellow educational institution, Eastern Michigan University has no business participating in any agreement that dissolves local control and unions for the sole goal of testing software for large-scale profit. We are supposed to serve and educate children, not profit off the most needing and vulnerable."

Other problems within the EAA have been exposed as well.

Earlier this year, The Detroit News revealed that EAA administrators had spent nearly $240,000 on travel, gas, furniture and other items in less than two years. Chancellor John Covington resigned soon after that news broke.

There also have been numerous complaints from teachers — first appearing on the left-leaning website Eclectablog — about problems ranging from the treatment of special education students to a lack of resources to discipline issues.

Another much-voiced concern is the EAA's heavy reliance on Teach for America instructors who lack certification as teachers. Despite their lack of training, some Teach for America teachers were used by the EAA to create the curriculum that was loaded onto the Buzz platform.

Nearly 10,000 students attended the EAA schools when their doors opened at the start of the 2012 school year. Currently, an estimated 6,500 students attend EAA schools. Critics contend that the massive loss of students reflects widespread parent dissatisfaction with the education their children are receiving at EAA schools.

EAA officials claim that internal test scores reveal that a majority of EAA students have made dramatic leaps forward. However, state-administered Michigan Educational Assessment Program tests contradict those claims, showing a majority of EAA students are either stagnating or are losing ground when it comes to achieving proficiency.

The exodus from EAA schools has been so great that the district, before the start of the current school year, sent a highly misleading letter to parents with children in DPS schools and in neighboring districts indicating (falsely) that their children had been assigned to an EAA school.

"There have unquestionably been growing pains at the EAA, which is not unusual for start-up districts," wrote EAA spokesperson Mario Morrow in an email. "But we are moving quickly to address them."

Earlier this month, after failing to follow through on a promise to involve the public in the vetting process surrounding the hiring of a new chancellor, the EAA board gave the job to Veronica Conforme, a former EAA consultant who had held the job on an interim basis since Covington's abrupt resignation. With a salary of $325,000 a year plus perks, Conforme enjoys compensation that far exceeds the average salary of $242,000 earned by superintendents at 53 large urban school districts nationwide, according to the Detroit Free Press.

If EMU's Board of Regents decides to withdraw from the inter-local agreement at its upcoming meeting, the school's relationship with the EAA will remain intact until June 2015. That allows time for a new entity – another state university, for example, or some other unit of government – to step into the void and allow the EAA to stay in business.

According to Steve Wellinski, an associate professor in EMU's Education Department and the person who launched the petition drive, the Board of Regents could also attempt to immediately withdraw from the agreement if it determines the EAA has, in essence, voided the contract. Failure on the part of the EAA to follow the law regarding treatment of special education students, for example, would be grounds for EMU to pull out immediately, Wellinski contended. He said he plans to raise that issue with the regents during this week's meeting.

It is also possible that the regents, in exchange for continuing to be a part of the inter-local agreement, could seek more of a role for the university in determining how the EAA educates its students.

"One of the many changes that Chancellor Conforme envisions is in the EAA's relationship with the Eastern Michigan University community," noted Morrow. "Over the past few months, she has been listening to parents, principals, teachers, students, and community leaders about what improvements the EAA needs to make. She firmly believes that dialogue must extend to EMU's educators, administrators, and students, and she intends to make that happen in the months to come.

"The EAA's goal is to provide our children with the best education possible, regardless of their economic circumstances. We know that is the goal of Eastern Michigan University as well. It is critical that we reach that goal together for the sake of our students."

Although the Legislature has failed to secure the EAA's future by enacting legislation designed to create a true state-wide district with the authority to take over low-performing schools, that approach still remains an option, either in the upcoming lame duck session or when a new session begins next year.

At this point, the only thing that can be said with certainty is that there is much uncertainty clouding the future of the EAA.

Curt Guyette is an investigative reporter for the ACLU of Michigan. His work, which focuses on Michigan's emergency management law and open government, is funded by a grant from the Ford Foundation. You can find more of his reporting at aclumich.org/democracywatch. Contact him at 313-578-6834 or cguyette@aclumich.org.


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