Democracy Watch: Politics Compel EMU Board To Keep EAA Alive

POST BY Curt Guyette Investigative Reporter

In a move characterized by critics as both overtly political and terribly damaging, the Board of Regents for Eastern Michigan University on Tuesday decided to keep the controversial Education Achievement Authority breathing when the board ducked a vote that could have pulled the plug on this abject failure.

The test subjects of this misguided educational experiment have been the children attending the 15 low-performing Detroit schools that Gov. Rick Snyder placed in the EAA when he created it four years ago.

These are children who, for the most part, were already many years behind their peers academically. Black children. Brown children. Poor children.

Most of all, they were vulnerable children in desperate need of a quality education.

Instead, though, these students received only the misfortune of seeing their schools (such as Denby High, shown above) stripped from Detroit Public Schools and placed in Snyder’s EAA.

Since then, the district has become yet another of the state’s dismal examples—along with emergency management fiascos in DPS and Highland Park Schools and the Flint water crisis—of how badly things can go when traditional democratic oversight is abandoned in favor of a system devoid of direct accountability to taxpayers.

Rather than an elected board that could be replaced by voters fed up by repeated failures and scandals, the EAA is overseen by seven appointees  –  all of whom, either directly or indirectly, are in place because that’s what the governor wanted.

Snyder -- and the rest of us – had much riding on the outcome of this experiment.

 "For Detroit to be successful, it depends on having successful schools. For Michigan to be successful, it depends on having a successful Detroit," Snyder declared when announcing the creation of the EAA in June 2011. "So we're all in this together, and we're going to make this happen as a team."

The EMU regents were critical to the process as was the Snyder-appointed emergency manager overseeing DPS.

What the governor and his team produced was an academically mediocre school district that has been mired in scandal since it began attempting to instruct students in the fall of 2012.

First, there was the massive failure of Buzz, education software produced by one for-profit Utah company and marketed by another. Buzz was supposed to have been the cornerstone upon which the EAA’s learning programs were built.

Instead, as an investigation by the ACLU of Michigan revealed, the software arrived late and not fully formed, filled with bugs that made it almost impossible to use. (To read more about Buzz go here.)

The public response of the EAA board to this scandal was complete silence.

In addition to the Buzz experiment, there’s also the matter of John Covington, the district’s first chancellor. He abruptly resigned in June 2014 after the Detroit News obtained records revealing profligate spending using a district credit card to pay for extensive travel, restaurant tabs and IKEA furniture.

The EAA made headlines again this past October when it was revealed that the FBI was engaged in a far-reaching corruption probe of district officials.

“The FBI and Justice Department subpoenaed personnel files and bank records or email account information for more than a dozen current and former officials at Gov. Rick Snyder’s K-12 Detroit reform district as part of a wide-ranging corruption investigation,” the Detroit News recently reported. “Those former officials include ex-Chancellor John Covington, chief of staff Tyrone Winfrey and former Mumford High School Principal Kenyetta ‘K.C.’ Wilbourn,” according to federal grand jury subpoenas obtained by the paper. Wilbourn was charged in a federal indictment that was unsealed on Dec. 10.

One year ago, the regents put the EAA on notice that it needed to dramatically improve in four areas if the district wanted EMU to continue participating in the inter-local agreement:

  • A stronger partnership is forged between Eastern Michigan University and the EAA;
  • Demonstrated student achievement and progress in EAA schools;
  • Fiscal Accountability;
  • Complete transparency of all activities, including prompt and appropriate responses to requests made under the Freedom of Information Act.

In a report recently produced by the university’s Faculty Senate, EMU’s progress in meeting those stipulations was closely evaluated. The conclusion was unequivocal: “Our analysis of the information provided as well as additional material within the public domain indicates that the Educational Achievement Authority has failed to meet all criteria established in the Eastern Michigan Board of Regents motion passed on December 5, 2014, and therefore we recommend termination of the agreement between EMU and the EAA.”

It was just the latest attempt to convince regents that continue support of the EAA is harmful to both the university and the children of Detroit.

“Over the last three years, the Faculty Senate, College Councils, and academic Departments have spent untold hours discussing the EAA,” Judith Kullberg, a political science professor and vice president of the Faculty Senate told the regents on Tuesday.  “After careful examination of the origins, performance, and record of the EAA, the senate and councils have repeatedly indicated their disapproval of EMU’s involvement with the EAA by adopting resolutions recommending termination of the interlocal agreement.”

“Indeed,” added Kullberg, “during my years at EMU nothing else has so united the faculty and the entire university community, as has opposition to the EAA. Even former President Sue Martin, whom you hired, recommended withdrawal before she resigned last May. And even now, when presented with overwhelming evidence that the EAA has failed to demonstrate the ‘substantial improvement’ that you demanded in your resolution of December 2014, you have decided to continue involvement.  

“Since there is no justification that can be provided for continuing EMU’s involvement with the EAA, the only logical conclusion that can be drawn is that your decision is purely political, dictated from the Governor’s office in Lansing.  This decision has nothing to do with the mission of Eastern Michigan University.”

Mike Morris, chair of the Board of Regents and a member of the EAA board, insisted there was no political motive to the failure of regents to vote on the issue.

“I'm 69 years old, retired from day-to-day work, and I have no political agenda,” Morris told reporters after the no-vote – which was met with shouts of distain from an overflowing crowd packed with protestors. “I have an agenda for those kids."

Morris also said that he frequently hears from parents and students attending EAA schools that they are more than pleased with the education they are receiving.

It’s not clear, though, how that claim jibes with the massive drop in enrollment that the EAA has seen since its doors opened. Students are continuing to flee the district.

What is clear, despite denials to the contrary, is that this non-vote was very much about politics. Ironically, proof of that is another statement made by Morris.

“Based on... ongoing efforts in Lansing to find an overarching agreement with respect to the Detroit Public Schools and the Education Achievement Authority, we are postponing a vote on Eastern’s involvement with the Education Achievement Authority,” the regent told public radio station WEMU. “We remain optimistic and confident that this matter will be resolved in the near term.”

Education Achievement Authority board member Mike Morris is also chair of the EMU Board of Regents, which ducked a vote on the fate of the EAA.
(T)he district has become yet another of the state’s dismal examples—along with emergency management fiascos in DPS and Highland Park Schools and the Flint water crisis—of how badly things can go when traditional democratic oversight is abandoned in favor of a system devoid of direct accountability to taxpayers.

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