Ex-teacher, lawmaker aims to improve Detroit schools


DETROIT — Ellen Cogen Lipton didn’t get a lot of notice during her first two terms in the Michigan Legislature. She was small, soft-spoken, and competent. She was a reliably liberal vote from the solidly Democratic Detroit suburb of Huntington Woods, a town of restored older homes inhabited largely by professors, attorneys, and young professionals.

This year, however, all that has changed. Ms. Lipton, the minority vice chairman of the House Education Committee, became interested in the Educational Achievement Authority, or EAA, the experimental agency Gov. Rick Snyder launched to try to fix what were said to be 15 of Detroit’s lowest-performing public schools.

The Legislature initially didn’t get any say in the formation of the EAA. Governor Snyder bypassed lawmakers to set up an “interlocal” agreement with Eastern Michigan University.

But now, after less than a year, the governor wants to expand the EAA’s reach statewide, initially to 50 schools. A bill that would do that narrowly passed the House last month.

The Senate is expected to take it up next month, and because Republicans have more than two-thirds of the seats in that body, its passage would seem to be a foregone conclusion.

But Ms. Lipton isn’t convinced. A former teacher who comes from a family of educators, she says the more she looks into the EAA, the more questions she has. When she asked for basic information, such as the number of teachers the EAA employs who are certified in their subjects, she says she initially was stonewalled.

After weeks of making Freedom of Information Act requests, she finally began getting hundreds of pages of documents last week. “They aren’t organized at all, and will take some time to study,” she told me. “But they raise as many questions as answers.”

One potentially troubling revelation is that the EAA is anything but financially solvent. Documents the district reluctantly released as a result of Ms. Lipton’s FOIA requests indicate that the new authority has borrowed at least $12 million since last September from its parent, the already cash-strapped Detroit school district. There also were signs that EAA officials took pains to try to prevent the loans from being noticed.

Though she is a patent attorney by profession, Ms. Lipton, who grew up mostly in Alabama, briefly was a chemistry teacher. Now 46, she has a son and a daughter in public schools in Berkley, a middle-class district.

Originally, she intended to follow her brother to medical school, but thought better of it, and took a job as a science adviser to two congressmen. Almost on a whim, she applied to Harvard Law School.

When she was accepted, both congressmen told her she’d be crazy not to go. At Harvard, she met and married a classmate from Detroit.

She was drawn into politics by the statewide referendum campaign in 2008 to permit embryonic stem cell research in Michigan. “I had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and this meant a lot to me,” she said.

Voters approved stem cell research. Ms. Lipton ran for and won an open seat in the Legislature.

Early on, she worked on legislation to protect mentally ill people and children, for which she was honored by the Michigan Probate Judges Association. But after her first two years in office, Republicans took control of the House. Democratic initiatives were most emphatically not welcomed.

What drew her attention to the EAA was, first, her observation that those who backed it “were largely the same people who were behind the voucher plan [former governor] John Engler and [Amway chairman and onetime Republican gubernatorial nominee] Dick DeVos were pushing” in 2000. That plan was defeated overwhelmingly by voters that fall.

She also heard testimony from a courageous teacher at Detroit’s Mumford High School, who wrote to the House Education Committee that “the reality is nowhere close to the dream that they are trying to sell you.” Other teachers and a group of Mumford students who called themselves the “Social Justice League” said their concerns were treated condescendingly by the school administration.

Though she has become more and more skeptical about the EAA, Ms. Lipton is not one of those who claim the Detroit schools were doing an adequate job. She knows there are many failing schools, not all of them in Detroit.

“I am just very leery of the idea that this is the answer to the fact that schools are struggling,” she told me as she prepared to dash off to her son’s soccer match this week. “In fact, based on what I’ve seen, this is not the answer.”

But she says that in opposing the EAA, “it’s not enough to just say no.” She is investigating how other states have handled their failing schools, hoping to come up with material that can help educators in Michigan find their own model.

Thanks to Michigan’s strict system of lifetime term limits, Ms. Lipton’s career in elected office seems likely to end in December. After that, she hasn’t decided what she will do next.

But if Democrats are looking for a conscientious candidate for the state board of education, it’s hard to think they could do better.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade’s ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

Contact him at: omblade@aol.com