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State Commission: Consider abolishing Board of Education

empty boardroom
john austin

A commission convened to offer reforms to Michigan's troubled education system recommends a major shift in oversight power to the governor's office – and the possible abolition of the State Board of Education.

Scheduled to be released Friday, the report by Michigan’s 21st Century Education Commission forwards two proposals that would grant the governor authority to appoint board of education members, while a third proposal would have the governor appoint the state superintendent and "abolish" the SBE. Currently, the eight-member board is elected directly by statewide vote.

“This approach recognizes that the governor is in charge of education and the public has clear accountability measures if they are not pleased with the outcomes,” the report states.

The highly anticipated report also appears to offer support for the continued use of a state assessment that is aligned with the Common Core state standards.

But commissioners could not reach a policy consensus on two other divisive issues in state public education — Michigan’s expansive charter school landscape, and the state’s generous schools-of-choice law, under which more than 120,000 students attend a public school outside of district boundaries.

The 25-member commission, created by Gov. Rick Snyder early last year, was charged with recommending long-term, course-altering changes to the state’s floundering K-12 education system. Michigan public schools have slid into the bottom tier of states nationally over the past decade despite frequent efforts at reform.

Adding more urgency to the challenge are projections showing that the next decade is likely to produce a serious shortage of college graduates or certificate holders to fill the skilled-job openings of employers in the state. Business leaders have lamented that the state’s inability to expand its skilled workforce threatens Michigan’s economic recovery.  

The 146-page report proposes a series of other reforms that sound like an educational Christmas wish list — and would cost upwards of $2 billion more a year if fully funded. The expense is justified, the commission says, by the long-term return on early and sustained investment in Michigan students.   

Among recommended reforms:

  • More funds for at-risk students in high-poverty schools, a strategy the study estimates could cost anywhere from $110 million to $900 million a year.

  • Better teacher preparation, with heightened certification requirements and mandated year-long residency training as part of the four-year college teaching degree.

  • Universal access to community college, by increasing financial aid and requiring areas not in a community college district to join the nearest district and “levy the commensurate millage to participate in this program.” If fully funded, that would cost $400 million a year.

  • Assist poorer communities with funding for building projects. The report states: “Since poorer students generally live in communities with lower property values, districts educating disadvantaged students are often doing so in lower-quality facilities, making success more difficult.” That could cost $200 million a year.

  • Universal preschool for all 4-year-olds. The proposal would remove the income restriction for participation in the Great Start Readiness preschool program and open it to children of all income levels. The report pegs its cost at $390 million a year.

  • Support efforts to consolidate Michigan's 540 school districts, in part by “offering incentives for local districts to voluntarily consolidate.”

The report acknowledges the political headwinds many of these proposals could face, in a state where Republican majorities in Lansing have been focused on cutting taxes rather than raising them. “We are cognizant of the challenges facing policymakers,” the report states. “Taxes are generally unpopular with voters and there is strong competition for state resources.”

But, it added: “At the same time, our current level of investment puts the state's future at risk.”

Education Commission members

Michigan’s 21st Century Education Commission has 25 members including business and nonprofit leaders, educators, teachers union reps and state agency officials:  

  • Dr. Thomas Haas, President, Grand Valley State University

  • Alloyd Blackmon, Whirlpool Co. and Michigan’s Great Southwest Strategic Leadership Council

  • Dave Campbell, Superintendent, Kalamazoo Regional Educational Service Agency

  • JoAnn Chavez, Vice President and Chief Tax Officer, DTE Energy

  • Roger Curtis, Director, Michigan Department of Talent and Economic Development

  • Dr. Randy Davis, Superintendent, Marshall Public Schools

  • Conway Jeffress, President, Schoolcraft College

  • Brandy Johnson, Executive Director, Michigan College Access Network

  • Ann Kalass, President and CEO, Starfish Family Services

  • Doug Luciani, CEO, TraverseCONNECT

  • Matt Oney, Escanaba Area High School physics and chemistry teacher

  • Doug Ross, President, American Promise Schools

  • Cindy Schumacher, Executive Director, Engler Center for Charter Schools at Central Michigan University

  • Kevin Stotts, President, Talent 2025

  • Teresa Weatherall Neal, Superintendent, Grand Rapids Public Schools

  • Eileen Weiser, Member, State Board of Education

  • Nate Walker, The American Federation of Teachers Michigan

  • Scott Hughes, Majority Counsel, Michigan Senate

  • Peter Ruddell, RWC Advocacy

  • Steven Cook, President, Michigan Education Association

  • Brian J. Whiston, State Superintendent

  • Nick A. Khouri, State Treasurer

  • John Roberts, Director, State Budget Office

  • Wanda Stokes, Director, Michigan Talent Investment Agency.

  • Casandra Ulbrich and Richard Zeile, co-presidents Michigan State Board of Education

Starting at the top  

Since the 1960s, candidates for the State Board of Education have been chosen at party conventions and elected by statewide vote. They in turn appoint the state superintendent, who oversees the Department of Education. Any change in the board election process would have to be approved voters as a constitutional amendment.

The author of a recent study that ranked Michigan dead last in the nation in school improvement said it's clear the state needs to do something to shake up its education system. Michigan was the only state ranked by the study in the bottom 10 in four measures of fourth and eighth grade academic growth from 2003 to 2015.

“If nothing is done, the public system of education is going to continue to decline,” said Brian Jacob, a University of Michigan professor and non-resident senior fellow for the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy organization based in Washington, D.C.

Jacob said he considers the lack of a consistent, statewide education policy one of several factors that has fed Michigan's education decline.

“There needs to be some clear line of authority,” he said, adding that making the state superintendent position a gubernatorial appointment is “worth considering.”

But putting that much power over education in the hand of a governor seems all but sure to stir resistance — particularly from standing members of the state board.

“I don’t think that would be a positive thing,” said newly elected board member Nikki Snyder, a Republican.

“That’s very concentrated, centralized power. That doesn’t always represent parents and people best.

“I think the most important thing to remember is that it’s constitutional, that it’s an elected body,” she said. “The best way for people to have access to education policy is to elect members of the state board.”

Charter, choice divide

The commission report said its members were “not able to achieve consensus” on policy regarding either schools-of-choice or the state’s powerful charter school industry, which leads the nation in the number of for-profit charter schools. There are about 300 schools in the charter system and nearly 150,000 Michigan students.

Chaired by Grand Valley State University President Thomas Haas, the commission included representatives from the education, business, government and nonprofit communities.

As debate continues over the quality of charter versus traditional public schools, there is ammunition for both sides. A 2014 Bridge Magazine analysis found some charter schools clustered near the top in academic performance, while others were near the bottom.

Critics say there is too little oversight and accountability over charter school operation and performance, while studies indicate that charters, overall, perform about the same or slightly better than traditional schools. Both modes of public education have vast room for improvement. A 2015 Stanford University study found that just 17 percent of charter students in Detroit were rated proficient in math, compared with 13 percent of students in traditional public schools.

Michigan’s generous schools-of-choice law has also drawn scrutiny, particularly after the recent nomination of West Michigan philanthropist and schools-of-choice advocate Betsy DeVos for U.S. Education Secretary. DeVos has a long record of support for an even broader choice system, as she has backed federal vouchers to let parents send their children to private and religious schools.

A 2016 Bridge Magazine analysis found the state’s schools-of-choice law has contributed to more racially segregated schools in communities across much of the state.

Former State Board of Education President John Austin, a Democrat and persistent critic of the state’s charter a school choice landscape, told Bridge he’s disappointed the report did not tackle how Michigan's charter and school choice systems are regulated. Austin served 16 years on the state board and on the education commission through December, following his defeat in the November election.

“We have a wild west of too many schools, many of which don't educate kids, competing for too few dollars,” Austin said. “We have too many charters that don't perform, and if they don't perform there's no reason for them to exist.

“This is hurting learning outcomes.”

Amber Arellano

A draft critique of the state’s charter and schools-of-choice laws, which didn't make it into the final report, said: “If anything, evidence suggests the current dynamics of expansive cross-boundary school choice and opening of more than 300 charter school and cyber districts has contributed to student performance declines.”

Austin added he supports many of the recommendations that were made by the commission, including more funding for at-risk schools and for college, and granting the governor’s office more authority over education – but doubts Michigan can make significant gains without reforming its charter and school choice system.

“You are not going to be able to move the needle without it,” he said.

While the commission punted on firm recommendations, the report does, however, offer “ideas to inform future debate” on both charters and schools of choice, including:

  • Improving transportation for families unable to take advantage of school choice options.

  • A statewide assessment by the Michigan Department of Education on the quantity and quality of schools offered in a community

  • Creating a New Schools Certificate of Need Commission to “set the criteria by which a new school would be permitted to open.”

Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of  Public School Academies, which represents the state’s charter school industry, disputed Austin's conclusions regarding charter schools.

“There's no facts behind that. I'm  not interested in perpetuating that myth. It really is frustration people are expressing.”

Quisenberry added that performance “for all schools in Michigan, charter schools included, needs to be improved.”

Don’t change state assessments  

Though the report did not use the term, it appears to endorse the state’s continued use of the state assessment that is aligned with the Common Core, a state-approved benchmark used in public school classrooms that lays out what skills students are expected to master at each grade level in math, language arts and other subjects.

“Michigan has adopted rigorous standards that should be maintained to ensure that longitudinal data on student growth remains intact,” the report states. The debate over the state’s testing has recently drawn more scrutiny with the recommendation by the state’s current superintendent, Brian Whiston (a commission member), to once again change the state’s assessment.

Proponents of Common Core say the standards promote critical-thinking and allow parents and schools to measure performance against peers across the state and around the nation. Critics have long derided Common Core as a one-size-fits-all approach to education and contend that such decisions should be made at the local level.  

And while debate over the education policy continues to divide the state, there is growing consensus that Michigan students are faltering.  

A recent analysis by the Education Trust-Midwest, a Royal Oak-based nonprofit education advocacy organization, noted Michigan was one of just five states where fourth grade reading scores fell between 2003 and 2015. While students of color in Michigan have long struggled, particularly in Detroit, less well known is that Michigan’s white and more affluent students have also been falling behind their demographic peers in other states.

The state’s white students, for instance, ranked 49th in fourth-grade reading in national testing, the Education Trust-Midwest analysis noted. And Michigan’s low-income fourth grade students of all races ranked 45th. Meanwhile, fewer than 10 percent of African-American fourth graders in the state were proficient in reading. In eighth grade math, Michigan ranked 38th, down from 34th in 2003.

The business case for change

The stakes are high for Michigan's future, given projections noted by Bridge in a 2015 report that the state will need nearly 800,000 more students with a college degree or training credential beyond high school by 2025 to meet the needs of employers and place Michigan among the nation's 10 best educated states.

To reach that goal, the 2015 report estimated Michigan would need to boost the share of those over 25 with a post-high school credential from 46 percent to 60 percent.

Doug Rothwell, president and CEO of Business Leaders for Michigan, echoed the report’s conclusion that the state’s failure to transform its public schools will have stark consequences.

“It's not just the business community – what's at stake is the future of Michigan,” Rothwell said.

“We've often said there's not a silver bullet to becoming a top 10 state. It requires you to work on multiple fronts. But if you don't have an educated work force, you don't get to play in this new world we are entering into.

“Good jobs are going to go elsewhere.”

The commission report also cited the need to make college “more affordable” for Michigan students. It noted Michigan spent $241 million on college financial aid 10 years ago compared with $110 million today. It did not specify a funding amount needed to accomplish that goal.

Bridge reporting has revealed Michigan ranks 41st in the nation in college financial aid and has the sixth highest tuition rate. Student debt in Michigan has increased by 48 percent in the last four years, making Michigan’s average student loan debt 7th highest in the nation.

Looking to other states

Education Trust-Midwest Executive Director Amber Arellano said, however, that Michigan cannot look to funds alone to solve the state's K-12 education struggles.

“We're not going to be able to spend our way out of this,” she said.

She noted that Tennessee has made significant K-12 strides in the past decade even though it spends considerably less per pupil than Michigan and has a comparable student demographic, a finding similar to that made by Bridge in 2014. Tennessee, in fact, was far behind Michigan in 2003 in fourth grade math but raced past by 2013, ranking 37th to Michigan's 42nd. It led the nation in highest improvement in several key subjects.

The analysis by Arellano’s group attributed much of Tennessee’s progress to a statewide teacher evaluation system, major investment in a statewide performance data collection system and a rigorous program of teacher training. Studies show that students of all races and income levels can achieve significantly greater learning gains from having highly effective teachers in the classroom.

“The quality of teaching is absolutely critical,” Arellano said. “It is the No. 1 in-school factor.”

She added her view that Michigan is “20 years behind the leading states” in developing quality teachers.

A new Michigan teacher evaluation standard passed in 2015 aims to close that gap, as teachers are to be evaluated and given one of four ratings: highly effective, effective, partially effective and ineffective. Teachers rated ineffective three years in a row would lose their jobs under the law, which has yet to be fully implemented.

Former state school Superintendent Mike Flanagan said achieving consensus on all the commission's recommendations could be difficult at best. He retired as superintendent in 2015 after 10 years in the position.

But Flanagan said if he were to single out one reform that would move Michigan forward, it is expanded quality preschool education.

A Bridge Magazine 2012 investigation found that almost 30,000 4-year-olds who qualified for free, high-quality preschool weren’t in classrooms because of inadequate state funding, logistical hurdles and poor coordination of services. The Legislature subsequently added $130 million in funding for the state's preschool program for low- and moderate-income families, enrolling 21,000 more 4-year-olds in the Great Start Readiness program.

Flanagan said he supports expanded preschool for 4-year-olds - and younger.

“Once the 4-year-olds are caught up,” he said, “you go down to the 3-year-olds.

“The biggest bang for the buck in achievement is early childhood education by far. You can spend a lot more money on pre-K and it will pay off big.

“It's the one thing that hasn't been done universally and it will make the biggest difference.”

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