Should struggling Michigan schools close?

As Michigan policymakers examine the future of their state's education, they may consider closing failing schools. Is it better for students to keep struggling schools afloat?

Jake May/The Flint Journal-MLive.com via AP
First-grader Scarlet Kelly, 6, right, reacts as her teacher Mindy Parrott reads to the class on the first day of school on Monday, August 22, 2016 at Central Elementary School in Davison, Mich.

It would be a mistake for state officials to start closing underperforming Michigan schools for academic reasons because it would devastate communities while not improving student achievement, concerned educators said Wednesday.

Associations representing school boards, school administrators and urban districts spoke out before the impending release of a statewide list, issued annually, of the bottom 5 percent of public schools. The rankings are based on test results, students' improvement over time, and the gap between the best and worst pupils.

The officials said that Gov. Rick Snyder's administration told some school leaders this month that if their schools are on the list for three straight years – which will be clearer once another is made public this fall – they may be subject to closure for the 2017-18 academic year.

"There is no data that shows that moving a child from one school to another school against their choice has any positive impact on student achievement. Quite frankly, it has a negative impact on the children," Chris Wigent, executive director of the Michigan Association of School Administrators, told reporters during a news conference near Lansing.

In March of 2015, the Republican governor took control of an office charged with turning around the lowest-performing schools by transferring its functions to an agency whose director reports to him instead of the state Board of Education. He cited unsatisfactory progress and said no schools had been placed in Michigan's turnaround district as authorized under a 2009 law.

That law lets the state impose one of four intervention models, including closure, if a school's "redesign" plan isn't working.

Caleb Buhs, a spokesman for the state school reform/redesign office, said suggestions that School Reform Officer Natasha Baker threatened schools with closure in recent meetings are "absolutely 100 percent false." He said no decisions have been made.

Buhs acknowledged, however, that closures are under consideration, saying it is "one of the few tools" to address chronically low-performing schools in addition to appointing CEOs to oversee schools or placing them in a special state district. He said it is a "tragedy" that some schools continually advance students who fall behind and ultimately are ill-prepared upon graduation.

"That's failing our children," said Buhs, adding that "we don't take the power to close a school lightly and understand the ramifications that that may have."

There have been indications that Snyder wants to more aggressively address the worst schools.

In June, he signed a Republican-backed state bailout of Detroit's school district that also orders the closure of any traditional or independent charter school in the city that is among the lowest-achieving 5 percent of schools statewide for the preceding three years. Baker can exempt schools from being closed if she determines it would place an "unreasonable hardship" on students.

There were more than 125 schools in the bottom 5 percent for the 2013-14 academic year. The 2014-15 list, which was delayed after Michigan switched to a new standardized test, is due to be released by Sept. 1. The data for the 2015-16 year is expected to be released in November.

The school group leaders said they were caught off guard because the Michigan Department of Education, which previously oversaw the school reform office, had suspended the use of top-to-bottom rankings for accountability purposes due to the test change.

"That is the piece that's kind of out of left field," said Don Wotruba, executive director of the Michigan Association of School Boards.

Since 2010, the state has identified 331 "priority" schools in the lowest 5 percent. Seventy-four were released after making gains; 86 remain under state supervision.

Seventy-three were closed, but not by the state. Rather, they were shuttered by their districts or, in the case of charter schools, by their authorizers or boards.

On Tuesday, some members of the Democratic-controlled state education board issued a statement saying they were "deeply concerned" about what they characterized as a lack of transparency and community involvement in the meetings between the state and local districts.

"While school closures may be necessary in some instances, those decisions are generally made at the local level and after much public deliberation, and include a quality, public option for affected students," they said.

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