- Associated Press - Friday, June 30, 2017

LANSING, Mich. (AP) - Gov. Rick Snyder reversed course Friday and moved Michigan’s school-turnaround office back to a state department over which he has no direct control, months after his administration backed off the office’s threat to close up to 38 chronically low-performing schools.

Snyder’s executive order came more than two years after he transferred the School Reform Office from the Department of Education - whose leader is hired by the elected state Board of Education - to the Department of Technology, Management and Budget - whose director reports to the Republican governor and which houses an agency that collects education data.

It had been a bid to get tougher on schools ranked in the bottom 5 percent statewide. In February, though, he delayed closure decisions after facing pushback. Snyder most recently called for lawmakers to update the school accountability law to set the stage for more “partnership” agreements by which the state and K-12 districts will try to turn around schools without closing them.

“Improving our schools and holding them accountable for their performance is critical to Michigan students’ success,” Snyder said in a statement. “Under the leadership and commitment of (School Reform Officer) Natasha Baker and State Superintendent Brian Whiston, the School Reform Office has done great work to establish policies and procedures that promote sustainable and positive student outcomes. Moving the office back to (the Department of Education) will ensure the efficient continuation of those efforts.”

Whiston, who became superintendent after the 2015 office transfer, helped negotiate the recent deals that require schools in nine districts - mostly Detroit - to make progress at 18- and 36-month intervals or risk further state intervention, including potential closure.

“We welcome back the School Reform Office to stay aligned in improving the lowest-achieving schools and strengthening the Partnership Model we have established with struggling districts,” he said in a statement.

Snyder spokesman Ari Adler denied that the governor reversed himself, contending that “it has been two successful years of jump starting a stalled program and we are now handing it off to a new state superintendent who is a good partner willing to keep the momentum going.”

Snyder’s order, which will take effect in two months, was welcomed by education groups.

Michigan Association of School Boards Executive Director Don Wotruba said the timing of the 2015 office switch meant Whiston had no real opportunity to effectively deal with struggling schools. Moving the office to Whiston’s direct oversight “will ultimately provide better guidance to our state’s most struggling schools,” he said.

But the Great Lakes Education Project, a school-choice advocacy group built by Betsy DeVos before she became U.S. education secretary, expressed disappointment that the state has not used its authority to close failing schools under a 2009 law.

“We don’t think it matters where the office is located. The state has the moral and constitutional authority to teach all kids,” said advocacy director Beth DeShone. “Sadly, we’ve not thus far seen the courage to exercise the real accountability and achieve the real change too many kids so desperately need.”

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Online:

Executive order: https://bit.ly/2tu5j16

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Follow David Eggert on Twitter at https://twitter.com/DavidEggert00 . His work can be found at https://apnews.com/search/David%20Eggert

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