Emergency manager law poorly designed for school improvement, study finds

October 30, 2012

David Arsen

Michigan’s emergency manager law gives individuals sweeping power over financially troubled public school districts. But in a new study Michigan State University researchers say the law does not address student learning and could even hurt academic performance in high-need communities.

The Local Government and School District Fiscal Accountability Act grants governor-appointed emergency managers all powers of the superintendent and elected school board, plus more. They can, for example, unilaterally cancel labor contracts, open and close schools and change curriculum – even though the law does not include standards or consequences tied to student achievement.

Citizens will decide whether to repeal the emergency manager law when they vote on Proposal 1 Nov. 6. So far, emergency managers have been appointed to three school districts: Detroit, Muskegon Heights and Highland Park.

“There are dozens of additional districts that currently have deficits, and the policy we have for addressing them is underdeveloped,” said David Arsen, professor of educational administration in MSU’s College of Education and a faculty associate in the Education Policy Center. “We need a policy under which leaders are obliged to take learning seriously and this law says nothing about it.”

Arsen and Mary L. Mason, an attorney and doctoral student in educational policy in MSU’s College of Education, analyzed the creation and implementation of the law based on government documents such as legislative histories, legal proceedings, school district financial statements and orders issued by emergency managers. Their study is available on the Education Policy Center website and has been accepted for publication by the journal Educational Policy.

Mary Mason

In the hurry to balance budgets, emergency managers with no background in education and without input from educators and the public could end effective academic programs or make other poor educational decisions, the researchers say. Also, although it is too early to assess academic outcomes, Arsen and Mason argue that simply shifting authority from local leaders to emergency managers will not fix the underlying financial problems.

“The law fails to take account of the role of state funding and school choice policies that place districts serving low-income families at a decisive disadvantage,” said Arsen. Unless this is addressed, he added, the state will only encounter more financially troubled districts.

The researchers recommend a policy framework for supporting financially troubled school districts that 1) ensures leaders have expertise in education, not just finance and business, 2) expects accountability for (not just authority over) academic decisions and 3) recognizes solving the deep-rooted problems in Michigan’s troubled districts will require a sustained effort among multiple stakeholders.

“As much as we’d like to think so, these are not problems that can be solved simply by changing the boss,” Arsen said. “Schools work better when they cultivate trust among educators, administrators and families, and we need to structure external support that can sustain that.”

Arsen and Mason made a presentation about the findings on Nov. 1 in 133-F Erickson Hall on the MSU campus. A copy of the findings and recommendations of the House Education Subcommittee (the Nathan report) cited in the study can be found here.