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This is bigger than the usual story of a free-spending administrator running amok

Jack Lessenberry

To the surprise of no one, John Covington resigned abruptly yesterday, with a year left on his expensive contract. He was the controversial head of Detroit’s controversial Education Achievement Authority, usually known as the EAA.

Both Covington and Gov. Rick Snyder insisted he wasn’t fired. This was clearly for appearances sake, and for appearances’ sake, both men are probably lucky they are not Pinocchio.

For the last year, there has been a steady stream of stories about problems with the authority, which was set up to run 15 of Detroit’s worst schools. Most recently, we learned that it has been spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in travel, sending administrators and teachers to a lot of expensive conferences.

The Detroit News revealed the authority spent $10,000 on gas for Covington’s chauffeur-driven car, money that could have been spent on teachers, computers and the classroom. So he is gone, and the people I know there won’t miss him.

But this has more importance than the usual story of one free-spending administrator running amok. And that is because Gov. Snyder wants to expand the EAA to at least 50 schools statewide. A bill that would allow that has passed the state House of Representatives, but hasn’t yet made it through the Senate. It should now be clear that they need to go slow.

We owe a special debt of gratitude, by the way, to State Rep. Ellen Cogen Lipton, who through diligent digging, managed last year to expose a lot of problems with the authority, and showed it had concealed the fact that they weren’t financially solvent. When it comes to education, a number of teachers and students have come forth to say what the EAA is doing isn’t working.

Ironically, conservatives often complain about liberals coming up with big government programs and forcing them on people. This is a case of conservatives wanting to take a deeply troubled program and expand it to the whole state.

Clearly, at the very least, some of the bugs need to be worked out of it. That doesn’t mean, however, that the EAA or something like it isn’t needed. Anyone who thinks the Detroit public schools can do the job is ignorant or crazy.

They have failed totally, and there are failing schools all over the state. I can certainly understand the governor’s impulse to fix them.

But the EAA seems a case where instead of being a shrewd costs-and-benefits businessman, Snyder is hoping wishing can make it so. Normally, it can’t.

There is an educational problem nobody is addressing, however, which may be at the heart of the education crisis. Two years ago, an idealistic young woman teaching in a Detroit charter school asked me this question:

“How you teach a child whose mother is a hooker and who lives in the backseat of her car?”

There are many children who do not have anything like a normal home, or life. How do we reach them?

I don’t have any answers, and I don’t know anybody who does. And unless and until we find them, I fear that education reform is shuffling the chairs on the deck of an already sinking ship.