BY JACK LESSENBERRY
— Ellen Cogen Lipton didn’t get a lot of notice during her first two terms in the Legislature. She was small, soft-spoken, and competent, a reliably liberal vote from the solidly Democratic suburb of Huntington Woods, a town of restored older homes inhabited largely by professors, attorneys, and young professionals.
This year, however, that has all changed. Lipton, the minority vice chair on 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 schools.
The Legislature initially didn’t get any say in the formation of the EAA; the governor bypassed them to set up an “interlocal” agreement with Eastern Michigan University.
But now, after less than a year, the governor wants to expand its reach statewide, initially to 50 schools. A bill to do that narrowly passed the House last month.
The Senate is expected to take it up next month, and since Republicans have more than two-thirds of that body, its passage would seem to be a foregone conclusion.
But Ellen 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 some basic information, such as the number of teachers the EAA employs who are certified in their subjects, she says she has been 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 that has surfaced so far is that the EAA is anything but financially solvent. Documents the district reluctantly released as a result of her FOIA requests indicate the new authority has borrowed at least $12 million since September from its parent, the already cash-strapped Detroit public school district.
There were also signs that EAA officials took pains to try to prevent the loans from being noticed.
Though she is a patent attorney by profession, Lipton, who grew up mostly in Alabama, comes from a family of educators, and was briefly a chemistry teacher herself. Now 46, she has a son and a daughter in the public schools in Berkley, a very 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 advisor 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. While at Harvard, she met and married a classmate from Detroit. She was drawn into politics by the statewide referendum in 2008 to permit embryonic stem cell research in Michigan.
“I had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and this meant a lot to me. The voters approved stem cell research, and Lipton also ran for and won an open seat in the Legislature.
Early on, she worked on legislation to protect the mentally ill and children, something for which she was honored by the Michigan Probate Judges Association. But after her first two years, Republicans took control of the House, and Democratic bills and initiatives were most emphatically not welcomed.
What drew her attention to the EAA was, first, her observation that those backing it “were largely the same people who were behind the voucher plan John Engler and Dick DeVos were pushing,” back in 2000, a plan overwhelmingly defeated 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 calling themselves the “Social Justice League” said their concerns and questions were treated condescendingly.
Though she has become more and more skeptical about the EAA, Lipton is not one of those who claims 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 Sunday. “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 currently spending every spare minute 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 lifetime term limits, Ellen Cogen Lipton’s career in elected office seems likely to end in December.
After that, she hasn’t yet 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, who teaches journalism at Wayne State University, is Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst, ombudsman and writing coach for the Toledo Blade and former foreign correspondent for and executive national editor of The Detroit News. He was named Journalist of the Year in 2002 by the Metropolitan Detroit Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.