State Board of Education races could swing Michigan K-12 school policies

You won’t find the Michigan state superintendent, who serves as the chief education officer for the state, on the ballot in November. You won’t be able to vote up or down on controversial social studies standards, decide what standardized testing should look like or balance control between local schools and state policymakers.

But who gets elected to the Michigan State Board of Education will have a significant voice in those decisions. The election also could tilt the political makeup of the board toward the left, or keep it 50-50.

The State Board is responsible for managing the Michigan’s public K-12 schools. The board does not set the budget for schools (that’s the state Legislature), but it does play a role in policymaking and hires the state superintendent – a job that is currently open following the death of Brian Whiston.

The board has eight members – currently four Democrats and four Republicans. Just two spots are open this year, both now held by Republicans: Richard Zeile and Eileen Weiser. Zeile is running for reelection, Weiser is not.

The seats are likely to be filled by candidates from the two major political parties. They are:

Left to right: Judy Pritchett (D), Richard Zeile (R), Tami Carlone (R), Tiffany Tilley (D)

Judy Pritchett, a Democrat, is 68 and has never before run for any elected office. She spent her career in education, first as a teacher, then a building administrator, a superintendent for Center Line Public Schools and finally as chief academic officer for Macomb Intermediate School District. She says her deep roots in education give her a good foundation for policy debate at the state board. She is now retired, and lives in Washington Township in Macomb County. More information is at Pritchett’s campaign website.

Richard Zeile, a Republican, is running to return to the state board. The 63-year-old is pastor and headmaster at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church and School in Taylor. Zeile is a big believer in local control and school choice. He now serves as co-president of the state board, and lives in Dearborn.

Tami Carlone, a Republican, is a 50-year-old accountant from Novi who primarily works as a consultant for companies in process improvement. The longtime education advocate believes the U.S. Department of Education should be eliminated, and that “mindfulness” meditation  shouldn’t be taught to elementary students in Novi because it is akin to teaching religion. You can read more about Carlone’s positions on education on her campaign website.

Tiffany Tilley, a Democrat, is a 41-year-old longtime political activist from Southfield. She works for the Wayne County Clerk’s office, is director of the Southfield Community Anti-Drug Coalition, and is a Realtor. She says she developed her views on education through advocacy in her own children’s schools and by working as a substitute teacher. You can read more about Tilley on her campaign website.

Why are you running?

Pritchett: I’ve attended almost every state board meeting for nine years. I have a good sense of how they work. I think I can bring practicality and common sense (from knowing) what will be the effect (of policies) in the schools.

Zeile: It seemed like much of my life experience has fitted me for this role. I enjoy the challenge of developing policy. Good policy encourages the behavior you want to see.

Carlone: I’ve been an education advocate for 18 years. I want a seat at the table because I have watched education in Michigan slide for years and I know what it takes to get it back on track. My goal is to make Michigan a powerhouse for education in our nation. Michigan must do better!

Tilley: Our kids deserve better than what our politicians are giving them. One of the issues is, I want to strengthen anti-bullying policies statewide.

What characteristics are you looking for in a new state schools superintendent?

Pritchett: Somebody who’s worked in public education, and an individual who has been in a leadership position. Leadership really matters at this point. Also, I’m looking for an individual who has worked with diverse groups, and understands that each child walks through the door with their own needs. And lastly, I’m looking for an instructional leader. That’s where student achievement is going to make a difference, in the classroom, with a highly respected teacher.

Zeile: I’m looking for someone with experience who has lived with the policies that he or she has proposed. My other priority is someone who’s familiar with our Michigan conditions. It’s not that I wouldn’t consider someone from outside Michigan, but it’s a deficit to have to become acquainted with the challenges of our various schools and districts.

Carlone: I would be looking for a person who is all about improving education results in Michigan and improving for every child. I’m passionate about someone who wants to get rid of the teach-to-the-test mentality and keep politics out of the classroom.

Tilley: Somebody who’s experienced, someone who is a visionary, and someone who really has the children at heart. I’m not opposed to opening (the candidate search) up nationally, but we should look here in Michigan first.

Related: 2018 Bridge Michigan Voter Guide: Links to our relevant election coverage

Any thoughts on statewide testing?

Pritchett: The evaluation process is tied to tests. In another year, we’re going to punish third-graders if they don’t do well on a test. We punish school districts based on test scores. Yet we change the test too much. We haven’t been able to find a test that is consistent year after year. We need to have those discussions with the Legislature to help them understand the complexities (of testing).

Zeile: This is an area where too much change is dysfunctional. I value tests highly. On the other hand, they’re not everything. We do need a set of data that can be comparable across the state and from year-to-year. Every time we change tests, we make that goal more distant.

On the other hand, you can do anything incompetently. One of the most widespread incompetencies is teaching to the test.

Carlone: I’ve fought M-STEP (Michigan’s standardized test) from the start. I’d like to think it’s more valid now, but I’d like to argue it is not.

Our country is the most innovative and prosperous the world has ever seen. That comes from creative thinking. What you do when you focus on the test is you kill the love of learning, and you kill the love of teaching.

Tilley: We need to change the way that we test. Testing does not dictate a child’s future, does not dictate how smart a child is. Some kids don’t test well. One blanket test is not going to show where a child is at.

Michigan has proposed controversial, conservative-leaning changes to its social studies standards, including removing “democratic” from the phrase “core democratic values.” Where do you stand on those changes?

Pritchett: I taught social studies. In my opinion, this process got very politicized. This happens with social studies sometimes. Some of the changes made I would not have supported. For whatever reason, it went too far one way.

Zeile: It’s ironic that they (the Michigan Department of Education) showed the (proposed) standards to the (left-leaning) Southern Poverty Law Center and no one said anything. (Editor’s note: The Southern Poverty Law Center had no input into the proposed standards beyond rating social studies standards of all 50 states, according to MDE.)

The great tragedy no one is talking about is that a third or less of our students have met the previous standards. There’s no evidence we have techniques to improve that.

Carlone: I find it ironic that the Democrats tend to have most power in our schools from standpoint of unions and teachers, and one conservative guy wants to stand up make things politically neutral (and everyone gets upset). Politics were involved in the standards before (State Sen.) Pat Colbeck got involved.

We need to get back to teaching history accurately, what mistakes we’ve made, what we’ve done well.

Tilley: I don’t like the changes. I don’t think we should rewrite history from someone’s ideology.

Where do you stand on ‘local control’ of schools versus state and federal policies and standards?

Pritchett: Local boards need to be able to make decisions on how their schools are going to run. On the other hand, with the transience (of students switching schools) we have we do need to have some common standards and goals we are looking for, no matter who the students are and what door they walk through. That consistency has to come from the state or federal government.

Zeile: There’s more than one way to skin a cat, and there’s more than one effective approach to education. We need to allow local authorities to make decisions, and then they are invested and responsible for them.

Carlone: I’m all about the kids. Every single child. If you approach education policy from the big picture, a lot of times the discussion is not about how to educate every child, including special education and high IQ. We need to do a better job for everybody.

Tilley: You have to have standards. Some things are going to fall under local control, but you have to have standards and make sure the districts are meeting those standards.

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Dianne Feeley
Thu, 10/25/2018 - 12:13pm

Sherry Wells, Green Party candidate, is also running for the state board of education. I'm surprised that Bridge magazine didn't include her in the round up! Elections are more than the candidates of the Republican and Democratic parties.

Thu, 10/25/2018 - 12:24pm

WE've had a State Board of Ed for how long? So how's that working out for us? What on earth do they do that matters in any way? Phil is right get rid of it!

Thu, 11/01/2018 - 12:34am

I am an Independent have been a child advocate within the Educational system since the '90s I have read all comments. There is only one candidate that is thinking outside the box from what I see who might be able to give CPR to help these kids survive, and that is Tilley. I would like to speak to her further about her views and plans and perhaps I will one day but her response to testing these kids since legislating No Kid Left Behind and having set standards to guide the districts (even if they choose to achieve those standards in different ways is spot on.

Jim tomlinson
Thu, 11/01/2018 - 3:27pm

Please no pastors in govt

Jim tomlinson
Thu, 11/01/2018 - 3:29pm

No pastors in govt please