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Article of Interest - Education in Michigan

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Bridges4Kids LogoMichigan Chief Blamed for School Results
by Mark Hornbeck, Detroit News, March 7, 2004
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The brightly colored ruler hanging on the wall in Tom Watkins’ office is longer than the customary 12 inches “because we go the extra half-inch for kids,” the state’s school chief likes to say.

Give the state superintendent half an opening and he’ll unabashedly expound on the virtues of public education.

“The true Statue of Liberty in this nation of ours is not the lady who sits in New York City Harbor. It is our neighborhood public schools, our bedrock, the nursery of our democracy,” declares the 50-year-old Northville father of two.

Watkins considers it his job to “take the hammer people use to beat kids down, beat teachers down, beat our schools down ... break it in half and turn it into a ladder to lift kids up.”

Are these the words of a skilled education administrator or a pitch from an accomplished spin master?

It depends on whom you ask.

Watkins, completing his third controversial year as superintendent of public instruction and director of the state Department of Education, is hailed by supporters as a tireless advocate for public schools, an engaging man who is doing what’s best for Michigan’s children.

“He’s done a great job,” says state school board President Kathleen Straus, D-Detroit. “He’s excellent at bringing people into the process, making sure they’re on board.”

He is criticized by others as little more than a cheerleader who has done nothing to make public education more accountable or to improve what goes on in the classroom.

“We’ve seen almost no results in his three years as superintendent,” says Republican Party Chairwoman Betsy DeVos, a persistent Watkins critic. “No amount of cheerleading and enthusiasm can replace results.”

It’s no wonder that an ongoing attempt by Republican lawmakers to put a constitutional amendment on the November ballot giving the governor, rather than the elected state school board, the power to appoint the state’s top school official is interpreted by some critics as a thinly veiled campaign to oust Watkins.

“Some Republicans are motivated to get Tom Watkins,” says Craig Ruff, president of Public Sector Consultants, an independent policy think tank based in Lansing.

The amendment would require Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm to reappoint Watkins, whose $165,000-a-year job would then be at the mercy of a confirmation vote by the Republican-controlled Senate.

Watkins, a former Democratic cabinet official hired by a Democrat-dominated state school board, rankled conservatives right from the start by favoring a delay in a state income tax rollback. He drew heavy fire from business and Republican leaders for his decision to scrap a school report card and for the subsequent delays in setting up a replacement accreditation plan. He angered charter school advocates, including Republican lawmakers, when he initially refused to issue state aid to new academies authorized by the Bay Mills Indian tribe.

But the move to put the appointment issue on the ballot goes deeper than Watkins, Ruff says.

“This issue pops up every five years or so because people can see that having the superintendent chosen by the State Board of Education is not a model of clean accountability,” he says.

“Nothing is more closely identified with state government these days than education. If the governor gets credit or blame for the performance of public schools, then he or she should have the ability to appoint the superintendent. It’s a matter of good governance and high accountability to the people.”

Michigan is one of 13 states in the country in which the governor has no role in appointing the state’s leading education officer.

State Rep. John Moolenaar, R-Midland, a former charter school administrator and sponsor of the constitutional amendment, argues: “Education is everyone’s top priority as they campaign for office, but when you ask questions about how our common goals can be accomplished, there’s really no high-profile elected leader at the helm to accomplish those goals.”

Democratic state board members oppose the idea, saying it is critical to leave the appointment to a bipartisan board “insulated from the political winds that blow in state government, with the independence to focus on educational outcomes.”

The constitutional amendment has passed House and Senate committees, but it requires a supermajority vote in the Legislature to go on the ballot. That’s the rub.

Granholm, who has said she’s “100 percent behind” Watkins, wants the ability to appoint the superintendent. But she opposes this measure because it would give the Senate veto power over her choice. Legislative Democrats are siding with her, so it’s unlikely the sponsors can muster the votes to put it on the ballot.

“Advice and consent is state government 101-type stuff,” says state Sen. Wayne Kuipers, R-Holland, sponsor of the amendment. “The Senate has a confirmation role for other department directors.”

But Granholm aides say the state Constitution places the superintendent’s position at a higher status than other cabinet offices.

“The superintendent is a constitutional officer. The Senate has no advise and consent role when the governor has to appoint other constitutional officers,” says Granholm spokeswoman Liz Boyd.

While the matter of choosing a state school superintendent is a long-term policy question, it’s difficult to separate the issue from the man currently in the office.

Watkins had little education administration experience when he took the job. He has degrees in criminal justice and social work and held state government positions in the governor’s office and Mental Health Department under former Gov. James Blanchard. He also was in charge of public school initiatives at Wayne State University and helped set up the state’s first charter school there.

“Some of us were looking for a noneducator, someone with experience in other areas,” board President Straus says.

State school board member Eileen Lappin Weiser, a Republican who voted against Watkins’ appointment, says it was a mistake to hire a leader without extensive education administration experience.

“The board hired him for his strengths as a powerful advocate for public education, not for his administrative abilities,” Weiser says. “But I think it’s inappropriate at this level to be learning on the job.”

Watkins has drawn praise for his executive hires, including former Dearborn Supt. Jeremy Hughes as chief academic officer and Ed Roeber as director of the state testing office.

He also won plaudits for defusing a political bombshell during his first months on the job when he worked with special education groups to devise new rules for that program.

Watkins has been roundly chastised outside the education community, though, for tossing out a school report card plan that he said relied solely on state test results and did not take into account other factors, such as dropout rates, teacher training and parent involvement. He directed staff to draw up a new accreditation program from scratch, a process that dragged on for months and eventually resulted in the first state report cards issued to schools late last month.

Critics say he changed the plan under pressure from education groups that were unhappy that more than 1,000 schools would be labeled “unaccredited” under the original plan.

“He stalled the release of the accreditation report for all of Michigan’s public schools, then he engineered new criteria, then he stalled it again,” GOP Chair DeVos says. “Three years later he issued an incomplete report.”

Watkins says he had to rebuild the accreditation system because state law required it to take into account more than just Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP) test scores.

“It was as inappropriate as it was illegal,” he says.

As for results, the indicators are mixed. Since Watkins took office, state dropout rates have dropped slightly, some test scores are up, some are down, some are stable.

Some critics say Watkins is reluctant to make tough calls and he hasn’t developed a substantive agenda for improving schools.

James Ballard, executive director of the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals, agrees with some of the criticism.

“I wish he’d step forward on the policy side,” Ballard says. “I don’t see him doing that.”

Watkins dismisses such criticism as “par for the course.”

“I run a large department. I’ve engaged a number of people inside and outside the department. Some people like the things I do, some don’t,” he says. “There are some people not on the same page as I am.”

    

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