LANSING, Mich. (AP) - Michigan announced Friday that it plans to close up to 38 underperforming schools in Detroit and other urban communities, potentially affecting 18,000 students and marking the first time that the state could close traditional public schools explicitly for academic reasons.
Despite the announcement, some schools likely will remain open. State officials next will determine whether a closure would be an “unreasonable hardship” for children with no better schools to attend. Lawsuits challenging any closures also are likely.
The announcement came in conjunction with the release of Michigan’s school rankings, which are based on standardized test results, students’ improvement over time and the gap between the best and worst pupils. Michigan law says the state can close schools that have been in the bottom 5 percent for at least three consecutive years if other forms of state intervention have not worked.
State-ordered closings appear to be rare nationally. Texas has closed entire school districts for failing to meet attendance and other standards. Other cities such as Detroit and Chicago have closed several schools at a time to address falling enrollment, sparking protests for safety and other reasons.
Fewer than half of states have school accountability systems that allow for closures and the option “has been used infrequently by states,” said Jennifer Thomsen with the Education Commission of the States. “It seems to happen more at the individual district level.”
Twenty-five of the schools targeted for closure are in Detroit, a predominantly black city with the worst academically performing school district of its size in the U.S. The rest are in cities such as Kalamazoo and Saginaw.
The plan drew sharp criticism from teachers’ groups.
“Simply closing schools and upending the lives of students won’t fix any problems if the root causes are adequately addressed,” said Steven Cook, president of the Michigan Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union.
The move follows attempts by Republican Gov. Rick Snyder to use state law to exert near-total state financial control of some cities, resulting in successfully guiding Detroit through bankruptcy but also the man-made Flint water disaster.
In 2015, Snyder took over the office charged with turning around the lowest-performing schools by transferring its functions to a department that reports to him instead of the elected state Board of Education. He cited unsatisfactory progress and said no schools in the bottom 5 percent had been placed in a state turnaround district as authorized under a 2009 law.
The law lets the state impose one of four intervention models, including closure, if a school’s “redesign” plan is not working. Last week, a GOP state senator introduced legislation to repeal the intervention law, calling it defective and in need of a fix now that state powers are being used more aggressively.
In deciding which schools will actually close, state officials in the coming weeks will look at whether there are nearby schools that rank higher academically and could handle additional enrollment.
“Our goal is to make sure that every kid in the state of Michigan has access to a quality education so they have the skills necessary for a high-wage job, a career or college. That’s the only way really to end multi-generational poverty for a large majority of the children in the schools that we’re serving,” said Natasha Baker, the state’s school reform officer.
The Education Achievement Authority, the state-run entity that was intended as a turnaround district for Detroit’s lowest-performing schools when Snyder created it in 2011, said it was disappointed to see eight of its 14 schools on the list for possible closure. Sixteen schools on the list are in the Detroit Public Schools Community District, while another is a separate charter school in Detroit.
“Today’s public announcement comes without input from districts, educators or community. This should make us all question the validity of this action,” said Education Achievement Authority Chancellor Veronica Conforme.
She and Chris Wigent, executive director of the Michigan Association of School Administrators, said the state used flawed data. State assessments have changed every year since the 2014-15 academic year, “so there is no consistent data upon which to base these closings,” Wigent said.
Until Friday, the state had only once before ordered school closings for academic reasons. Those closures in 2010 and 2011 involved two charter schools, which are independent public schools that are especially prevalent in Detroit. Other charters have been closed by universities and others who run them.
The state’s charter school group, the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, backed Friday’s announcement.
“Nobody likes to see a school close, but we support the state taking this responsibility seriously,” said Dan Quisenberry, president of the group. “Our kids deserve better.”
Williams reported from Detroit. Associated Press writers Will Weissert in Austin, Texas, and Don Babwin in Chicago contributed to this report.
This story has been corrected to change the number of schools in Detroit that are subject to closure to 25.
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