Michigan education officials now say they’re not likely to close as many schools as they could this year.
When Chalkbeat broke the news about the School Reform Office’s aggressive school closure plan on Monday, we reported that more than 100 schools across the state could be shuttered at the end of the school year.
State officials signaled that the number of closures would be that high, based on how many schools have consistently posted test scores in the bottom 5 percent of the state in the past, the criterion the state is using to choose which schools to close this year.
Now, they are saying that the number is going to be smaller.
“It is nowhere near 100 schools,” School Reform Office Director Natasha Baker told the Free Press. “There has never been 100 school closings, and we certainly aren’t going to start that practice in Michigan.”
Indeed, widespread school closures are logistically and politically perilous, and even officials who have wanted to dramatically shake up their school systems have never tried to close that many schools at once.
In Michigan, even a few closures would mark a big shift: In the six years that the School Reform Office has had the power to close schools, it has never done so. (Gov. Rick Snyder cited that record when he seized control of the office last year from the Michigan Department of Education.)
The School Reform Office has vowed to shutter any school whose test scores put them in the bottom 5 percent statewide for three straight years. The public won’t know how many schools have met that threshold until later this fall, when scores from the last two rounds of state exams are released.
It’s possible that many schools have seen their scores rise in the last two years — and even small increases that bring schools out of the bottom 5 percent would be enough to make them ineligible for closure.
At the same time, schools that posted low scores on the state’s old exam are likely to be struggling on the new, tougher test that launched in 2015. An architect of the closing plan, School Reform Office official Dan LaDue, said as much when he told Chalkbeat that many of the schools that would be closed have been low-performing for a decade or more.
“I’ll be very blunt here,” LaDue said. “Most of these schools that we’re looking at have been identified for improvement not just … two or three times but eight, nine, 10, 15 times.”
There’s another possibility: that schools meet the closure criteria but stay open because the School Reform Office decides shutting them down would leave their students without access to a better school. That escape clause, called an “unreasonable hardship” exemption, is baked into the state law requiring the School Reform Office to close low-performing schools in Detroit — a law that LaDue says the office plans to apply statewide in the interest of fairness.
In some parts of the state, closing a low-performing school might require students to travel far distances. Detroit, too, has some neighborhoods with few schools. In other neighborhoods, students might have another option nearby — but those schools might not be better. In either case, the School Reform Office has given itself the option not to pursue closure.
The School Reform Office plans to tell schools whether they’re on the closure list by the end of 2016.
That means families and educators at schools where test scores have been low in the past will start the school year not knowing what the future holds. They also have good reason to feel misled: State education officials had told them that the 2015 scores would not be used to penalize their schools.
Those feelings are sure to color the year at the many schools in Detroit and beyond — including in the Education Achievement Authority, the state-run district for low-performing Detroit schools — where officials have been trying to boost scores.
“I think we’ve implemented a lot of positive strategies that I think will bear fruit this year and into next year,” EAA chief Veronica Conforme told Chalkbeat. “But … turnaround takes a long time.”