Chief Blamed for School Results
by Mark Hornbeck, Detroit News, March 7, 2004
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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
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
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
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
“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
But Granholm aides say the state Constitution places the
superintendent’s position at a higher status than other cabinet
“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
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
“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
“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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