EMU’s regents stand by Snyder, EAA in 6-2 vote

Double or nothing

When it came time for Eastern Michigan University's Board of Regents to vote last Friday, there was much that didn't much matter.

The question before the regents was this: Should the university retain its affiliation with the Education Achievement Authority, the controversial experiment in public education created at the behest of Gov. Rick Snyder and given control over 15 low-performing Detroit schools?

By a 6-2 vote, the answer was "yes."

It didn't matter that the university's president, Susan Martin, called upon the Board of Regents to end the university's association with the EAA.

It didn't matter that the Faculty Senate has twice passed strongly worded resolutions calling on the university to withdraw from the interlocal agreement that brought the EAA into existence in 2011.

It didn't matter that EMU's student government recently passed a similar resolution.

The concern expressed by more than one speaker that EMU's "sterling" reputation as a training ground for teachers is being badly tarnished by the EAA relationship didn't matter.

The fact that more than 2,200 people signed an online petition urging the regents to cut its ties with the EAA didn't matter.

It didn't matter that 15 speakers — a group that included EMU faculty, students, and alumni — laid out a variety of reasons for the university to pull out of the deal, including the fact that other school districts in the state are refusing to take student teachers from EMU because of the university's connection to the EAA.

One of those speakers, Mike Rains, a retired public school teacher with a degree from EMU, raised the issue of an American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan investigative report that revealed the extent to which the EAA relied on badly flawed education software as the focal point of its teaching efforts.

"In the EAA, I see a gambler's mentality," Rains said. "Throw out the old, just because it's old. Bring in the new, just because it's new. Maybe this time the roll of the dice will bring on success. No regard for substance!

"What is clear is that the EAA gambled big. And lost. EMU gambled big on the EAA. And lost. MEAP scores are falling. The kids' academic lives are further damaged."

That and many other controversies surrounding the EAA — from the exorbitant spending that led to the sudden resignation of the EAA's first chancellor to the low Michigan Educational Assessment Program test scores to the high teacher turnover to the loss of thousands to students since the district opened its doors in fall 2012 — were not enough to sway a majority of the regents.

Instead, they gave notice that the EAA essentially had one year to clean up its act.

Specifically, the resolution passed by the regents — with no public discussion of their reasoning — states that the university intends to provide notice to withdraw its participation in the interlocal agreement in December 2015 unless "substantial progress" is made in the following areas:

A stronger partnership is forged between Eastern Michigan University and the EAA;

Demonstrated student achievement and progress in EAA schools;

Fiscal accountability; and

Complete transparency of all activity, including prompt and appropriate responses to requests made under the Freedom of Information Act.

The EAA reacted to that decision with a measured statement from spokesman Mario Morrow, who said:

"We're pleased that the EMU trustees are continuing to focus on the urgent need for education reform and student achievement. The EAA's new chancellor, Veronica Conforme, is intent upon listening to the views of the EMU community and acting upon what she hears. The chancellor has been scrutinizing the operations of the EAA and assessing its successes and shortcomings, and she intends to unveil her plans for the future in the coming weeks. It is imperative that the EAA reach its potential and deliver a better future for the children of Detroit."

The reaction from many at the meeting was one of outrage. As the outcome of the vote became clear, audience members began shouting, "Shame!" and sprawled on the floor as they chanted, "Black lives matter. The EAA is killing us."

The question is, given the depth and breadth of opposition to the EAA, why would the regents vote to continue on with the agreement for at least another year?

"Students are failing in school districts all across the state," Regent Jim Stapleton said in a statement. "The governor should be given credit for recognizing that and at least attempting to do something to try and address it. My hope is this district becomes the statewide entity it was purported to be when it was conceived and it avails itself of the many advantages being affiliated with our University's College of Education's national reputation gives it."

Stapleton's endorsement was far less than whole-hearted.

"When this District was formed," he said, "I was among its biggest supporters. I applauded then and, I applaud now, Governor Snyder's commitment to public K-12 education and, his willingness to make it a priority. That said, everything about the EAA since it was announced has been disappointing."

Yet he and five others on the board still voted in favor of remaining connected to the EAA.

The two regents who voted against retaining ties with the EAA — Chair Francine Parker and Floyd Clack — are both leaving the board. Appointed to eight-year terms by former Gov. Jennifer Granholm, last Friday was their last meeting.

Desmond Miller, student body president, characterized the vote as one of allegiance. Martin, Parker, and Clack stood firm in their support of the university and its best interests, Miller explained in a statement released after the vote.

The others, he contended, gave their loyalty and support to Snyder, who appointed five of the six regents voting to retain the university's relationship with the EAA.

"With today's vote, you showed that you do not care for us," Miller wrote. "You do not care about the future employment of our students nor do you care about our opinions. And with today's vote, you drew the line showing your true priority, and it is not Eastern Michigan University."

A letter from the Faculty Senate following the vote voiced "respect" for the board's decision while at the same time explaining why there would be continued opposition to the university's association with the EAA:

"We stand by our recommendation and unequivocally state, it is time for EMU to end its relationship with the EAA. It is hurting EMU students, it is damaging the reputation of EMU, and most importantly, it is hurting the children of Detroit." — mt

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 [email protected].

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