Lessenberry: Detroit's EAA 'fatally flawed' 

Tragedy, farce, and the EAA

John Covington, the imperial head of Detroit’s fatally flawed Education Achievement Authority, got fired last week.

They’re all denying that, of course. The cover story is that suddenly, at the start of the week, he “resigned to care for his ailing mother,” which is touching, presuming he has one.

And, oh, yeah, he plans to start a “consulting” business, often white-collar speak for being mostly unemployed.

In fact, nobody would ever leave a job like Covington’s voluntarily, even if they were, well, dead. For presiding over 15 of Detroit’s absolutely worst schools, he was being paid $325,000 a year. What did he do for that? 

Guarantee every kid in the system would eventually go to Yale Law School? Or at least be a hands-on presence in the schools? Well, not exactly. Covington seemed to spend most of his time jetting himself and his top administrators to conferences in places like Las Vegas. He also liked to be driven around. The Detroit News revealed that the EAA spent an astonishing $10,000 on gas for Covington’s chauffeur-driven car. Money that could’ve been spent on kids, computers, and classrooms.

Last week, I was at the Roma Café near Eastern Market when Mayor Mike Duggan showed up to meet a couple for lunch. He came alone and drove himself.

Guess he’s no John Covington. 

So now he’s gone, but the EAA goes rolling merrily on, wasting money and failing the students. What’s more, our supposedly business-savvy governor, Rick Snyder, keeps pressing the legislature to extend this model to the entire state.

So what’s all this about? Well, by way of background: Three years ago, Snyder created the EAA in an effort to turn around Detroit’s worst schools. They separated them from the rest of the rapidly dwindling Detroit Public Schools, gave them a governor-appointed board, which then hired Covington.

Unfortunately, that hasn’t meant a steady march to progress. In fact, by nearly every measure, the EAA is an expensive failure. Hearings before the legislature last year turned up thoroughly disillusioned teachers and students. 

Last year, one courageous English teacher at Mumford wrote to the state House education committee and told them “the reality is nowhere close to the dream that [they] are attempting to sell you.” She and others said whenever teachers or parents raised any concerns, they were patronized.

Ah, so what about test scores, which for years we’ve regarded as the sacred symbol of whether education reform is working? There’s certainly no sign of drastic improvement. Covington bragged that nearly three-fifths of EAA students made a year-and-a-half’s worth of progress in a single year.

Trouble is, that seems to be horse exhaust. Take the MEAP scores, for example, long the conservatives’ beloved favorite yardstick of school performance.

According to the most recent numbers, math scores got better for 21 percent of the students penned up in EAA schools. But math scores got worse for 36.1 percent.

Reading scores were essentially a wash. According to the progressive website eclectablog.com, 38.5 percent of kids got better, while 35.1 percent, worse. Yup, great thing, that EAA.

Last week, Veronica Conforme, the “education consultant” who temporarily replaced Covington, vowed that she too was determined to help Detroit’s kids, and crowed that “the EAA has shattered the status quo that held them back.”

No comprendo, senora!

What we do know is that enrollment in the EAA is steadily plummeting, and teacher turnover is higher than it should be.

This experiment is not a success. 

True, the sorry Detroit Public Schools weren’t doing the job. But you don’t have to be a hardened cynic to conclude that the taxpayers didn’t get much out of the creation of what amounts to another large and expensive bureaucracy. 

Well, as they say, one sure sign of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. 

So what then would you call our governor’s mission to expanding this turkey statewide, even without admitting the problems or making any attempt to work the bugs out of it?

When I heard that Covington was being shipped out, I asked the person whose opinion I most trust on this issue what she thought. State Rep. Ellen Cogen Lipton (D-Huntington Woods) is a big reason we know as much about the EAA as we do. Last year, she launched what at first was a lonely crusade to get facts about the EAA. She spent some of her own money to pay for Freedom of Information Act requests.

Eventually, after much stalling, she got hundreds of pages of documents that showed, among other things, that the EAA wasn’t living within its means, and at one point had to borrow at least $12 million from the Detroit Public Schools.

I caught up with Lipton, a patent attorney who was once a chemistry teacher, while she was knocking on doors one muggy afternoon. She’s term-limited out of her job, and is waging an uphill primary battle against State Sen. Vincent Gregory. 

I wanted to know whether she felt there was a chance the EAA could get better, now that Mr. Chauffeured Limousine had been driven away. “Sadly, no,” she said.

“He was certainly part of the problem,” she added, “but he was really just coming out of and executing [decisions] based on the flawed infrastructure that was in place.”

Lipton mentioned some of the problems: “They have no plan for special education, no plan for safety issues.” 

Later, she posted on Facebook: 

“The entire [EAA] model is flawed, replacing community-run schools with a top-down Lansing bureaucracy, and replacing skilled and qualified teachers with ineffective computer software that didn’t challenge the students. 

“Why would you want to expand that, to perpetrate fraud on more communities?” 

Why indeed?

Well, there are some, including Lipton who fear this is just sort of a “halfway house”; that sooner or later, the goal is to privatize the schools and let the governor’s buddies get their hands on some of the billions available for public education.

What’s clear is that this has been a failure, and we need to step back and reassess before expanding the EAA one school.

What’s ironic is that, for generations, conservatives have complained — sometimes justly — that liberals want to impose big, expensive social programs on people, whether or not the people want them or if there’s any sign they even work.

Now, that’s exactly what our very own Gov. Rick Snyder is trying to do to schools in this state. We need to tell our lawmakers to just say no.

Heartwarming read:  Believe it or not, there was a time when Detroit not only saved itself, but saved the world — and the odds against it may have been as great as they are now.

I’ve been reading A.J. Baime’s new book, The Arsenal of Democracy: FDR, Detroit, and an Epic Quest to Arm an America at War. You may have known that Detroit armed the world back in the 1940s, but it was anything but foreordained. This book features an auto company (Ford) run by bat-shit crazy people, bureaucratic inefficiency, almost unbearable tragedy, and even a full-scale race riot thrown in. 

Yet Detroit triumphed, against great odds. This is a fascinating story, and there may be a few lessons here that are relevant for our own turbulent times. 

More by Jack Lessenberry

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