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Week in review: Right-wing Michigan philanthropist Betsy DeVos reportedly in the mix for Trump education secretary

Harassment and intimidation complaints in schools spiked after last week’s election, and Michigan officials are pleading with “educators at all levels” to help stop the bullying:

“Our schools must be safe havens for our children – free from hate; free from intimidation; free from bullying; and free from fear.”

— State Superintendent Brian Whiston

The election fallout comes as Michigan political watchers wait to see whether an influential figure in state education policy could join the new Trump administration. Read on for more details and the rest of the week’s education news.

Ed sec speculation hits home

As Donald Trump prepares to become president in January, a powerful — and controversial — figure in state education politics is in the mix as a possible education secretary in the Trump administration.

Republican Betsy DeVos helped lead an unsuccessful push to change the state constitution to allow private school vouchers and has been a strong supporter of school choice programs. She sparked criticism this year when together with other wealthy family members, she flooded state lawmakers with campaign cash as they debated whether to include oversight for charter schools in their Detroit schools legislation. They didn’t.

It could be weeks before we know who Trump will choose, but one prominent native Detroiter whose name had been floated says he’s not interested. And while some say that whoever does get the job won’t have much influence under existing federal law, others in Michigan want the U.S. Education Department shuttered completely.

Other names in the education secretary mix include former Indiana schools chief Tony Bennett and New York City charter school mogul Eva Moskowitz, who said Thursday that she doesn’t want the job. As Trump appears to be considering education reformers, they face a stark choice: serve or steer clear?

Election aftermath

After his statement Monday that lamented the election’s impact on the “actions, demeanor and mood in some of our schools,” state Superintendent Brian Whiston followed up the next day with another message, this time issued jointly with the state’s top civil rights official. They called on “every administrator, teacher, staff member, parent, guardian, bus driver and student” to “stand as one in condemning intolerable conduct regardless of message or motivation.” The second statement also included a list of resources and specific guidance for schools.

That effort came as some parents at a Grosse Pointe school were angered by a unity message broadcast after the election by the school’s Muslim principal. And a Birmingham teacher is under fire for tweets that questioned the values of his largely white students in the wake of the election.

Those incidents, which follow high profile events last week like the viral video of Royal Oak students chanting “build that wall” in a school cafeteria, are part of a growing national tally of post-election bullying and harassment in schools.

It’s not all negative though. Students at this Michigan school created a “wall of positivity.” And these middle schoolers are doing their part to spread unity and kindness.

In Detroit:

  • The Detroit News says the new Detroit school board must prove itself. Arguing that “despite a couple of bright spots,” the new board “doesn’t offer a lot of hope for the district’s variability,” the paper urged the board to conduct a nationwide search for a new superintendent. But Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather should be an option, the paper wrote: “She’s done well in her role.”
  • The success of the Wayne County tax hike vote last week might inspire neighboring counties to seek similar votes in upcoming elections.
  • The heads of two prominent local foundations explain why they’re launching a “bold, city-wide engagement to bring the needs of Detroit’s youngest citizens, from birth to age 8, to the forefront.”
  • A local after-school program that teaches low-income children to play classical music was honored this week by the White House.
  • One advocate says Detroit needs more college pipeline programs.
  • The private companies that now run school buses in Detroit have adapted to recent changes and technology.
  • A school bus crashed into a manufacturing plant on Detroit’s northwest side, injuring the driver. No kids were on the bus.
  • A former Detroit Public Schools CEO has died.

Across the state:

  • Without state oversight, dual enrollment programs that are supposed to help students earn free college credits while still in high school are diminishing. While the programs have grown in popularity, not all colleges accept the credits.
  • State officials want public input on how best to respond to changes in federal education law and are holding public forums around the state.
  • What would it cost to pay Michigan teachers the way we pay doctors? A lot.
  • One advocate warns that a teacher pension crisis is looming in Michigan.
  • A suburban teacher’s aide pleaded guilty to charges related to sexaul contact with students.
  • Police at a suburban high school are investigating whether a student threatened to carry out a school shooting.
  • A suburban high school is hosting a “Prep for Success” educational symposium this weekend to help over 1,000 students and their parents get help with study skills, test prep and academic guidance.

From Chalkbeat:

Detroit week in review

Week in review: A hurry-up-and-wait moment for Detroit’s landmark education lawsuit and more in this week’s school news

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
On his first day as Detroit schools superintendent, Nikolai Vitti, with former interim superintendent Alycia Meriweather, greets principals at a teacher hiring fair at Martin Luther King Jr. High School.

Was this week’s education news big? We won’t know for a long time — at least a month, but possibly years.

That’s after a lawsuit filed nearly a year ago over the conditions in Detroit schools had its first day in court. A judge will rule within 30 days whether the suit can proceed over the objections of Gov. Rick Snyder, whom the suit targets and who argues that the state can’t be held responsible for Detroit’s schools. If the suit does move forward, it’s likely to take years to have any real effects on local schools.

Of more immediate consequences: Michigan got a rare reproach from federal education authorities, teacher vacancies remain, and an outside-the-box strategy to reach poor kids over the summer. Read on for that news and more, and have a great weekend!
— Philissa Cramer, Chalkbeat managing editor

STILL LOOKING: The main Detroit district is still scrambling to hire hundreds of teachers in hopes of being fully staffed for the upcoming school year.

OUTSIDE THE BOX: Libraries Without Borders is turning laundromats into learning spaces this summer. “At the laundromat, there is a population that often has fallen through the cracks,” the group’s executive director told Chalkbeat. “For the most part, especially during the day, you have unemployed adults and very, very young children.”

ABOUT THAT LAWSUIT: Catch back up on the bleak picture the lawsuit paints. Plus, a city teacher and public school graduate responds to the state’s argument that poverty, not state officials, is holding local students back.

NOT SO FAST: The 70-percent reduction in testing that Detroit schools chief Nikolai Vitti announced last week won’t be distributed evenly; high school students will take fewer tests, but students in other grades won’t see many changes. Vitti says he wants to do more over time.

NEGATIVE FEEDBACK: Less than a week after a phone call that state officials said was positive, the U.S. Education Department rejected Michigan’s plan for holding schools accountable. Now the state has to revise and resubmit — but to whom? The federal official responsible for approving the plans is reportedly on his way out.

A MYSTERY: The number of students in Michigan receiving special education services is on the decline. Were students inappropriately being determined to have special needs? Or are students who need services going without them? A parent group says that’s what’s happening.

TEACHER PREP: A tiny local college, Marygrove, will stop offering undergraduate courses; some local schools employees studying education are among the students stranded. A national group offering an online teacher certification program, Teachers of Tomorrow, got approval from the state to start funneling educators into Michigan classrooms.

STUDENT SHIFTS:  A Wayne State University study shows early evidence that as more African American and poor students choose schools in suburban districts, students in suburban districts choose schools further away from Detroit.

MOVERS AND SHAKERS: The new Detroit Children’s Fund picked Jack Elsey, formerly a top official in the state-run recovery district, as its executive directorTonya Allen, head of the Skillman Foundation, has joined an effort to rethink the way schools are funded in Michigan … Get to know Earl Phalen, the head of a growing charter network that has its roots in Indiana and schools in Detroit. … Top Detroit schools official Alycia Meriweather ranks as “the teacher’s favorite” in MetroTimes’ People Issue … And meet Chris Lambert, who’s inspired by God to recruit volunteers to spruce up city schools. (See the sprucing.)

THE DUVAL CONNECTION: Vitti’s former district, Duval County Public Schools in Florida, is gearing up to replace him. According to news reports there, Vitti is also importing one of his deputies from Florida to lead “marketing and rebranding” for Detroit’s schools.

MARK YOUR CALENDAR: Detroit Public Television’s annual teacher summit is next Friday; educators working in prekindergarten through third grade can sign up now.

By the numbers

Highs and lows from New York City’s annual school surveys of parents, students and teachers

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

New York City’s annual school survey is full of highs — 99 percent of teachers think students are safe in their classes — and lows — the schools chancellor still hasn’t reached peak approval ratings from her first year on the job.

More than 1 million parents, students and teachers responded to the survey for the 2016-2017 school year, which the education department called a record high.

The surveys often paint a sunny picture of the nation’s largest school system, and the responses are used in the city’s School Quality reports. But it’s hard to make year-to-year comparisons of the data because of changes to the questions and given responses.

Almost all of the 72,400 teachers who responded to this year’s survey said students are safe in their pre-K-fifth grade classes. That was the highest positive response of any survey question.

The high marks come after Mayor Bill de Blasio declared last year the “safest school year on record.” That claim, which some of the mayor’s critics have disputed, is based largely on a decrease in the seven major crimes categorized by the NYPD.

Also earning high marks: the city’s Pre-K for All initiative, which provides free, full-day care for 4 year olds. About 98 percent of parents reported they “feel good about the way that their child’s pre-K teacher helped their child adjust to pre-K.” The city hopes to expand the popular program to 3 year olds, starting with a pilot in two school districts this upcoming school year.

Now for some low points.

Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña’s popularity among teachers is a mixed story: 55 percent of teachers said they were satisfied with the chancellor. That is up from last year, when teacher satisfaction dropped to 52 percent. However, that’s compared with 60 percent of teachers in 2015, after her first full year on the job.

The education department compared the chancellor’s performance to 2013, when a meager 27 percent of teachers approved of then-Chancellor Dennis Walcott, who was on his way out as then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg finished his third term.

As for students, only 49 percent said their peers behave well when teachers aren’t watching (kids will be kids?) and 52 percent said teachers support them when they feel upset. Only slightly more than half, 55 percent, agreed their teachers ask them hard questions most of the time.

Update: This story has been updated to reflect Carmen Fariña’s approval rating over time.