Sticks and stones can break my bones but words -- like hold harmless and Academy -- mean something

If you think Governor Snyder wants to keep holding top Districts harmless from the reformers "academies" please consider some lame duck instead of turkey this Thanksgiving.

Words mean things – even though my good friends who work more with numbers sometimes use the term “wordsmithing” in a less than positive way.

They can tell us much about what Governor Snyder and The Oxford Foundation’s reforms mean or don’t mean for top rated school districts.

Let’s start with the phrase “hold harmless”—that phrase has meaning and it tells us much about how state politicos, past and present, Democrat or Republican, think of top rated Districts when they set about “reforming” public education from Lansing.

In 1994, when Proposal A strictly limited what more affluent Districts could tax themselves to pay for their public schools, there was an understandable political outcry.

People in Bloomfield, Birmingham, Grosse Pointe, etc. understood that their District stood, quite literally, in harm’s way. They understood the good motivations driving (at least) some of the reformers who wanted greater equity in public education resources. But at the same time they wanted their Districts held harmless from such draconian attempts to cure specific problems. And while they might not want to pay more taxes they wanted the local right to choose if they paid more taxes.

The logic, if not the funding formula, was simple: don’t destroy what works to try to fix what doesn’t. And leave us in control of our own fate. Folks in these parts of the world have done quite well at life and don’t necessarily need direction from those who have done less well.  

To a certain extent top rated Districts were successful, successful in the limited way good parenting can protect children from the sometimes absurdity of the political world.

Hold Harmless funds have, quite literally, kept Birmingham and Bloomfield public education top districts.  It is not just the money, of course, but the way the money preserves a quality of District that continues to draw talented students or, at least, those who want good public education. In this sense, financial and cultural capital work as one.

The Oxford Foundation and today’s school “reformers” remember the words hold harmless, too.

That is why they are 1) targeting the very concept of the “District” 2) foregrounding proposals to either eliminate entirely or limit not hold harmless but what reformers now call “enhancement” millages to 3 mils and disburse that money across district lines 3) ignoring entirely the fact that some public education districts are terrific while 4) doing their level best to make everyone believe all districts are low functioning and in need of a radical makeover.

You should familiarize yourself with all 4 strategies.

Residents of BHSD are quite familiar with strategy #4 – the seemingly strange attempt by local critics to liken BHSD to the worst Districts in the state even though, by all measures, they are at the top.

For example, one of the strangest moments to me in the recent schoolboard race involved an August 27 Patch post by candidate Jenny Greenwell who touted the new East English Village Prep Academy (what used to be Finney) as a model for new high schools, including the building of the new Bloomfield schools. She was at the ribbon cutting apparently because her husband, Don Greenwell, and his firm, had participated in the remodeling of East English Village Prep. It struck me as odd to not only compare a struggling system to BHSD but to in fact hold up East English Village Prep Academy and Detroit reform as a model, an exemplar!

How odd, I thought, mistakenly.

Context helps.

Ms. Greenwell (perhaps inadvertently) referred to East English Village Prep as part of the Detroit Public Schools rather than belonging to the “non” District that actually manages it: Governor Snyder’s “shadow” district -- The Educational Achievement Authority (EAA). The EAA is explained quite carefully in the HB6004 analysis, set to become law soon. While the legislative leg work is not completely done, the EAA has been kicking along in Detroit for some time, taking over 15 schools (3 charters). This is what the EAA does. It identifies Districts in the bottom 5% of the state and then authorizes the state to take those Districts over and “remodel” them (The East English Village Prep was part of this remodeling, to the tune of 48 million).

Things aren’t going so well with this first reform effort and that can tell us much about current K-12 reform movements writ large.

When the Emergency Manager Proposal (#1) failed (along with Proposal 2 and others) on November 6, the Detroit Public Schools reclaimed control of this “shadow” District. Rather comically, the EAA Emergency Manager or “Chancellor” (a western European word that always implies an easy, aggressive, and very, very male quick solution to a complex problem), Roy Roberts, has threatened to quit because he has lost the total control Govenor promised him (those pesky parents!).

This "threat" to quit is comic because DPS can’t wait for the Governor’s man to go. As far as they are concerned he is already gone even though he is still considering quitting. Things are a mess. The only beneficiaries to date are those who got paid to create the “Academy.”

What is next on the legislative agenda? HB5923. It is sitting on the Chuck Moss lame duck table for Congress after Thanksgiving like a delicious and easy to grab leftover turkey sandwich with gravy.

Unlike HB6004, which it follows as sure as night follows  day, this bit of reform makes no distinction whatsoever between the bottom 5% of schools and those at the top. As currently worded HB5923  will utterly efface hold harmless millages and open Districts like to BHSD and Birmingham and their tax money to all sorts of “schools" and change what many have come to know and appreciate.

In short, it will do for the rest of the state more or less what the EAA does for Detroit – only in kinder, gentler terms because those that have a choice in America usually avoid “Chancellors” if they can.

The BHSD 2020 folks and their educational gurus from Rochester might just get their “Academy” after all – unless those parents and taxpayers who value their top rated Districts come to terms with the fact they are in a knock down, bare knuckles fight.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

-Elizabeth- November 19, 2012 at 02:32 AM
" The big hand of government is not going to fix it." But that is exactly what is coming down the pike. Actually it feels like a massively huge hummer with a huge hand of government coming down the pike. And I don't believe it will "fix the problem" or rather, it may cause more problems than it fixes.
Mike Reno November 19, 2012 at 03:14 AM
They are not coming to fix it... maybe they are bringing that hammer to break the monopoly!
Neal Charness November 19, 2012 at 04:11 AM
Thankfully we ignored your urgings during the high school bond issue, elsewise we'd have capacity for almost twice as many students as we have and the the schools of choice by imposition are coming. Linda, your reasoning just isn't there and all the electoral issues are done. Quit being like Romney and let go--his party can't get rid of him soon enough. By the way, there are many fine Republicans who voted for Romney who are truly concerned and interested in the health of the schools--it's not a political party thing at all. Romney is just someone that keeps digging the hole deeper after the electoral defeat and there seems a reasonable analogy with our friend Linda.
-Elizabeth- November 19, 2012 at 11:39 AM
I meant Hummer, as in a vehicle driving down a road, or pike and about to run everything over, good and bad. It isn't as much about breaking up a monopoly as creating a million little Mom 'n Pops each with their own separate administration and then creating one HUGE monopoly for all those other "bad" schools being run by Lansing with its administration APPOINTED by the Governor. I would rather trust in a locally elected board. If the idea was to give those students who are achieving beyond the norm, greater choices, then do that. Instead, we are changing the entire system of public schools to one of being publically financed. From what you have written in the past, that is exactly what you want. Although I am not a lawyer, to me that notion is contrary to the intent of the Michigan State Constitution.
-Elizabeth- November 19, 2012 at 11:44 AM
I will add again, that I do not believe a State run district will "fix" the schools they are intending to "fix" with their state run district.


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