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The polarizing debate over the EAA

Nov 24, 2014

Credit Jake Neher / MPRN

The Education Achievement Authority has been the center of controversy since its doors first opened. The idea was to create a statewide school district to take over and turn around failing schools. The EAA is now in its third year, operating schools, all in Detroit, and it remains a polarizing subject in Michigan.

Michigan isn’t the only state where policymakers have created statewide school systems to turn around their worst-performing public schools. Tennessee and Louisiana have “Recovery School Districts,” or RSDs, similar to Michigan’s EAA. Nelson Smith has been studying these state turnaround systems for the Thomas Fordham Institute. His most recent report is called “Redefining the School District in Michigan”. Dan Varner serves on the State Board of Education. He’s also the head of an organization called Excellent Schools Detroit, which is seeking ways to make school choice work better in Detroit.

Smith says what he’s been looking at is how statewide turnaround districts affect governance structures in the states they’re located. Smith notes that Michigan’s EAA is much more complex than either Tennessee’s or Louisiana’s. For both Tennessee and Louisiana, their RSD operates as a state agency. In Michigan, the EAA started as an inter-local agreement between Detroit Public Schools and Eastern Michigan University.

Smith says one result of this being set up as a contract, instead of codified in state law, is that it's vulnerable to changes.

Varner notes that problems facing the EAA were rather predictable, considering the circumstances. He says the EAA initially lacked state funding, relying instead on donations. Another issue the short time frame the EAA had to take over operations of the most difficult schools in the state.

One complaint opponents have leveled against the EAA is that it essentially treats students as guinea pigs. And the EAA's opponents are not limited by political ideology, counting among their ranks both teachers' unions and proponents of local control. After its first year, 24% of students at EAA schools did not return.

Varner and Smith both say what really matters is student achievement. Varner says results from this spring's MEAP test will be an important factor in deciding the effectiveness of the EAA. 

Click on the link above to listen to Nelson Smith and Dan Varner discuss the EAA.