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The human cost of the "technocrats"

How many times do Michigan residents have to absorb disastrous policies before we decide a change of course is in order?

How many times do high-handed technocratic systems that usurp elected control have to fail before we demand a government "of, by, and for the people"? These are the questions that come front and center to anyone who has read the latest revelations about the Flint water disaster and has even a passing familiarity with our state's other experiments with technocratic central control. While we at MIPFS focus on education, the implications are much wider: how do we ensure that our policymakers serve and protect the people of our state? This is a crucial question to keep in mind as we go into an election year.

Let them drink poison

The disaster in Flint, in which (among other things) thousands of children were exposed to lead in their drinking water - which will have untold consequences for their intellectual development in future years - was the direct result of state management which focused solely on the bottom line and showed great contempt for the concerns and frustrations of local citizens. It will be years before the full costs are known.

Just recently, impromptu "sick-outs" by teachers in Detroit Public Schools to highlight scandalous conditions in schools there have underlined the consequences of more than a decade of state control. From 1999 until today, DPS has been under the full control of a locally elected school board for only three years (2006-8). While conditions in DPS before 1999 were not ideal, the declines in student enrollment, financial condition and academic outcomes for which DPS is so often cited have happened almost entirely under state control via appointed emergency managers. (Even the conservative Mackinac Center agreed that the first seven years of state control did little to improve DPS.) The crowning irony? The current emergency manager of DPS - Darnell Earley, who announced his intention to resign at the end of February - was in charge in Flint as EM when the fateful decision to switch water sources was made.

How have our state leaders responded to the situation exposed by DPS teachers? With much the same attitude that met Flint residents who complained about their water. Michigan Radio columnist Jack Lessenberry said it best:

This isn’t about getting a raise, however; it is a desperate attempt to get somebody to notice the squalor. Unfortunately, many legislators couldn’t care less. Detroit is a long way from their districts. Though none will say so publicly, many of them view what’s going on from a racist perspective. They think this is about a bunch of blacks who ran their schools into the ground and now want another state bailout. There’s also another ingredient in what is fast becoming an explosive dynamic: the Republican legislative leaders hate unions, and teachers’ unions in particular. So instead of trying to do something to help the schools, they are instead attempting to ram through a three-bill package designed to harshly punish both teachers and their unions for striking.

Talk about shooting the messenger.

"I miss having books in my classroom"

But to see the full extent of technocratic folly, we need look no further than the Education Achievement Authority, created under state auspices by DPS's emergency manager and the regents of Eastern Michigan University to run 15 former DPS schools. Only weeks after it launched in the fall of 2012, state lawmakers put on a true blitzkreig of effort to make the EAA custodian of all "failing" schools in the state. The EAA, its computerized curriculum, and its largely inexperienced teachers were going to work miracles, we were told. We soon discovered the reality: classrooms without books; students working with a poor quality and largely incomplete computer curriculum; questionable moves to remove special education status from students or push them to leave (taking their costly needs with them); astounding teacher turnover as young recruits often with only a few months training bailed out; and corruption scandals which led to the rapid departure of the EAA's first leaders and criminal indictments of an EAA principal and outside vendors. After four years of delivering a wholly inadequate education to some 10,000 of our state's most vulnerable students, the EAA is now to be dismantled at the end of next school year as part of the DPS restructuring proposals.

There are other stories as well: state management of schools in Highland Park went so well that they were sued by the American Civil Liberties Union for failing to teach students how to read. Sadly, state courts rejected the suit, saying that the State of Michigan has only a duty to provide a free public education, not necessarily a good one. Emergency management in Muskegon Heights schools went south when the manager decided to turn the district into a charter school to help pay off its debts. In less than a year, the for-profit management company hired to run the system bailed as revenue tumbled and before its failure to improve academic achievement could be publicly acknowledged. The charter school board there decided to go it alone.

Damn the facts, full speed ahead!

Have any lessons been learned from this sordid history? Apparently not. Just last year, the state Legislature passed bills allowing for more financial scrutiny of schools and "enhanced deficit elimination plans" to be overseen by the Treasury rather than an agency which understands education. The State Reform Office, charged with taking over persistently "failing" schools, was moved from the Dept. of Education to the Dept. of Technology, Management and Budget by executive order. The governor made this move apparently because MDE had not been aggressive enough in taking over schools. The SRO has just announced that it will appoint a "CEO" for four of the seven schools in the East Detroit Public School district, rebuffing requests that the district be allowed to work with the Macomb Intermediate School District on improvement efforts instead. Local officials expressed confusion and disappointment.

And what about DPS, ground zero for state control of school districts? Bills now before the Legislature would create a new, debt-free, district which would eventually have an elected board. But there is a catch: the new board will not be able to pass a budget, or hire a superintendent, without the approval of a state-appointed financial review committee. How long will that review committee be in place? In the current proposal, as long as the state government wants it to be.

First, do no harm.

Do the people of Michigan have an obligation to make sure that every child gets a decent education? Sure. But state takeover has proven over and over to be a disaster. Schools need to be run by, and accountable to, their local residents - otherwise there is almost no check on bad behavior. What should the state do? How about providing solid help, and the resources to back it up? That may not appeal to the "get tough" crowd, but it does have a chance of actually working.

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