Austin: Baker Is Out Of Control

MIRS Newsletter – August 18, 2016: State Board of Education President John AUSTIN said the state’s school reform officer is “out of control” by, at the very least, insinuating in conversations with local school officials that academically low-performing schools will be shut down by June 2017 (See “SRO Mentions Closing Failing Schools As Meetings With Locals Begin,” 8/5/16).

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John Austin, SBE

As MIRS first reported Aug. 5, Natasha BAKER has left the impression with some school officials that after the 2016 school assessment data comes out in late fall, the state will be preparing a list of local school buildings it will close at school year’s end.

The Governor’s office doesn’t foresee the closure of more than 10 schools for chronically being within the state’s lowest 5 percent performing schools and that any that are closed will be after consultation with local officials (See “SRO: No Priority Schools Closing Immediately,” 8/17/16).

However, the panic that has ensued among local officials has been so pronounced, Austin is calling on Gov. Rick SNYDER to “rein her in and get

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Natasha Baker, SRO

sensible about bringing in resources” and additional help to those schools where the students consistently perform poorly on state tests.

Because the way he sees it, Baker’s goal is to shut down large numbers of public schools so privately run charters can come in to skim profits off Michigan taxpayers to the detriment of the state’s poorest children.

Baker leads a school reform office that was moved earlier this year out of the Department of Education — of which Austin has some oversight — over to the Department of Technology, Management and Budget (DTMB)

“Natasha Baker is out of control,” Austin said. “Who is controlling her, if anyone? Is she taking direction from the Governor? From GLEP (pro-school choice advocacy group Great Lakes Education Project)?”

Austin said he doesn’t believe Baker is committed to a “quality alternative” once the state shuts down a public school building for poor performance, a situation that the state has had the power to do for years, but has never done.

Michigan needs to adopt education models from states that are performing better on state assessments, like Massachusetts, as opposed to continuing down the road of expanded charter schools in an “insane environment where we’re not policing for quality.”

GLEP Executive Director Gary NAEYAERT said the charter school community has been watching the recent coverage of the SRO’s actions. It’s hoping the administration isn’t getting cold feet about holding problematic traditional public schools accountable after signing legislation that creates a pathway to aggressively tackling schools like Pontiac High School, which has been at the rock bottom of school rankings for five years running.

He noted that 12 schools have been among the state’s 5 percent lowest-performing schools since the state began tracking such information in 2010. If the state closed down schools for being ranked in the bottom 5 percent in 2012, 2013 and 2014, 20 schools in Detroit, alone, would be shuttered.

None of the schools are public school academies, Naeyaert said, because authorizers will pull the plug on a school before it ever gets to this point.

“Up to now, there is no level of failure that has compelled the state to close a school,” he said. “How bad do you have to be to get closed?”

The Detroit Public Schools rescue legislation lays out a process by which a schools will close after three consecutive years of poor performance. It’s a process Naeyaert said he’d like to see the state implement and replicate statewide.

However, the Detroit schools’ transition manager, Steven RHODES has an opinion from the Miller Canfield law firm that lays out a legal argument as to why the SRO cannot immediately close any schools in Detroit.

State officials are hesitant about fighting for a school closure in court, but Naeyaert’s point is that “Words are easy and the action is hard.” The law needs to be implemented.

“If there are only exceptions and no rule we need to strengthen the rule,” Naeyaert said.

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