DETROIT, MI — Education policy in Michigan and the debates around it have become a tangled thicket for reporters (and their audiences) to navigate. Among the complications: the rapid expansion of charter schools; emergency management of public schools in Detroit and beyond; and an experimental statewide school district. And, as we know from the recent work of Detroit News statehouse reporter Chad Livengood: the existence of a “secret work group” developing a “lower-cost model for K-12 public education” that looks like a voucher program in all but name.
In April, a confidential source sent Livengood a manila folder full of documents that the reporter described to me recently as a “packet of goodies.” From them, Livengood was able to break the news on April 19th of the secret group “that includes top aides to Gov. Rick Snyder [and] has been meeting since December,” soon after “GOP lawmakers abandoned controversial legislation…that would have allowed corporations, municipalities and cultural institutions to run charter schools.” Per Livengood’s report:
The education reform advisory team has dubbed itself a “skunk works” project working outside of the government bureaucracy and education establishment with a goal of creating a “value school” that costs $5,000 per child annually to operate, according to meeting minutes and reports obtained by The Detroit News.
Records show the group has strived to remain secretive, even adopting the “skunk works” alias, which dates to defense contractor Lockheed Martin’s secret development of fighter planes during World War II.
In January, participants were instructed in a memo to use “alternative” email accounts.
The group’s plan, Livengood wrote, would expand online learning using fewer teachers and provide students with a debit card “similar to the electronic benefits transfer used to distribute food stamps and cash assistance for the poor” to pay for “tuition.” While group members Livengood spoke with denied over and over again that this was a voucher program, the reporter told me they couldn’t provide an alternative word to describe it. As Livengood’s initial report explains, a voucher system “lets parents use tax dollars to choose between private and public schools—something prohibited by the state Constitution.”
Besides the lack of transparency around the “skunk works” group and its controversial model, news about the group made waves for its makeup: employees of software companies, charter school advocates, and five state employees (including the group’s leader and Gov. Snyder’s chief information officer, David Behen). Excluded from the group: members of the state’s education community (apart from one educator, Livengood wrote, who left the group when, he told Livengood, “it really kind of looked like…they were discussing a special kind of school being created outside of the Michigan public school system.”) One group member told Livengood he “purposely didn’t put a bunch of teachers on (the panel)” to generate a different approach to delivering K-12 education through rapidly changing technology.
Before breaking the news, Livengood called Richard McLellan—one of the “skunk works” group’s members, a Lansing lawyer, and vouchers advocate—and Gov. Snyder to ask about the group. McLellan told him, “You’re not supposed to know about that.” Gov. Snyder acknowledged that he knew about the group. “That’s a key point,” Livengood told me in a recent interview, “because [Snyder] proceeded to tell media the next couple days that he didn’t know about it.” On April 20, the News ran a piece featuring Snyder’s defense of the group, which the governor described as people “get[ting] together and try[ing] to come up with new ideas and try[ing] to innovate and bring those ideas forward.” Snyder, who Livengood pointed out “made government transparency a top priority since taking office in 2011,” called questions about the group’s secrecy “overblown.”
The Detroit News stayed with the story by filing a massive FOIA request with the state’s Department of Technology, Management and Budget, with a particular interest in emails between the agency and the governor’s office about the working group. Beyond a report on the email contents, this move led to a new education story in late May. Livengood discovered that the Educational Achievement Authority (EAA)—a controversial, experimental state-run school reform program in which Michigan takes poorly performing schools and puts them in a statewide school district—“embellished” its status and authority in a successful $35 million federal grant application. According to a May 24 article co-written by Livengood and reporter Jennifer Chambers, among other embellishments, “the application to the U.S. Department of Education for a five-year teacher merit pay program claimed the reform district with 15 Detroit schools had legislative permission to grow to 60 schools in 10 urban districts by 2017, which it doesn’t.”