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Opinion | We must reinvent Michigan’s education system, starting with how it’s governed

Launch Michigan’s recent analysis of how Michigan school districts compare in reading and math proficiency and graduation rates to similar districts in top-performing states highlights how Michigan’s education system is not keeping pace.

Seven out of eight Michigan school districts do worse in math than similar districts in top-performing states, and 70% do worse in reading. About 71% of Michigan districts have lower graduation rates than their national comparison districts.

Venessa Keesler headshot
Venessa Keesler is president and CEO of Launch Michigan, a nonprofit aimed at reimagining the state’s education system.

As someone who has worked at multiple levels of Michigan’s public education system, I know that we didn’t get here overnight. After decades of Band-aid fixes and a lack of investment in education, Michigan has fallen far behind most states — not due to a lack of effort from educators but because of a broken system.

For Michigan to be successful in the coming decades, we must reinvent what happens in school for all students. This means a better focus on career and college readiness, an emphasis on skills needed for the jobs of tomorrow, and multiple pathways for students toward college and careers while still in high school. 

To make this a reality, we need increased resources invested strategically and with a focus on equity to ensure all kids have what they need to learn and be successful. 

And we can’t do any of this without addressing how our education system is governed.

Most people interact with education governance at the local level — the school board is selected in local elections, and the board hires the district superintendent. At the state level, things look different.

Michigan is one of only six states that does not place the governor in charge of the leadership of the education department. Instead, members of the State Board of Education oversee the state superintendent and Department of Education, even though these individuals are not directly involved in the state education budget or legislative policymaking. 

Most of the people elected to the State Board of Education are politicians, not educators, and many want to sit on the board as part of a larger political career, which means that the politics and motivations of board members tend to be rather polarized and specific. The State Board of Education has relatively little authority, but they have one very important job – hiring the state superintendent.

You can see some of the obvious issues that can arise. For one, there is not a clear leader of the state’s public education system and goals. The state superintendent is often caught between what the governor wants to do, what the legislature wants to do, and what their board wants them to do. This makes it extremely difficult to make strides as a state. 

It is essential for the State Board of Education and Michigan Department of Education to have strong, collaborative relationships with the state legislature and governors of both political parties. This lack of consistency has led to ineffective decisions being made by policymakers at a time when our system of schools needs outstanding research-based decisions made on behalf of about 1.5 million kids and more than 100,000 educators.

The Launch Michigan Framework and Growing Michigan Together Council Pre-K-12 recommendations both identify governance alignment as a key issue for Michigan’s educational performance. 

To align Michigan’s education governance, a constitutional amendment is needed, and that means a ballot proposal where individual citizens will vote on the future of our public education system. It will take everyone working together and reinforcing each other’s efforts to change policy and practice in service of students. 

So, when you see this question on the ballot some day in the future, remember: we owe it to Michigan’s students to give them an education system that sets them up for success.  

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Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission. If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact David Zeman. Click here for details and submission guidelines.

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