I've been trying to figure out just why Michigan's decades-long decline in our kids’ school performance has been largely accepted by the public without widespread cries of outrage.
Nor has an overpowering sense of urgency developed in those who understand how disadvantaged our kids will be when they try to compete in a skills-based world economy after leaving school.
You might find this utterly baffling.
However, there are lots of reasons parents may find it hard to sort out who is to blame ‒ ranging from a legislature that really doesn't care much for school matters (especially if a teachers' union is involved), to a school community with a habit of blaming every problem on a lack of money and state support.
But beyond that, a less easily noticed cause comes from the very structure of our education system, which is disjointed, opaque, politically and administratively confused and very largely lacking in systematic accountability.
To try to get our bearings, here’s an attempt at sketching out an organization chart for how our public schools operate today:
Put at the top the governor, the chief executive officer of the state. He or she makes basic policy and budget recommendations.
Next comes the State Board of Education, which is given (by Michigan’s Constitution) the primary role in “leadership and general supervision over all public education.”
The eight members of the Board are elected to eight-year terms, with their terms staggered so that some of them are elected every two years. They are nominated by partisan state conventions.
These days, members often clash over matters of political ideology, such as when they battled over what rights of self-determination transgender students should have.
These days, the Board is evenly split between R's and D's. The governor may or may not agree with the Board's policy decisions.
A state superintendent of schools – the actual title is State Superintendent of Public Instruction ‒ is selected by the state board. Again, this superintendent may or may not be in agreement with the governor on budget, policy, or any other matter affecting the schools.
The superintendent runs the state Department of Education, a sprawling bureaucracy which has been heavily criticized for being ineffective and too often staffed by second-raters.
Yet much of the power any of these various bodies and actors has is strictly advisory. Various committees in both houses of the legislature oversee and set both school policy and budgets.
Today, Republicans have majorities on all committees, and have had since 2011. But getting them all to agree with each other (or with the governor or the state board) is problematic.
It is common knowledge in Lansing that the legislature despises both the state Board and the Department of Education. (Neither group comments on the record about the legislature, for obvious reasons, but it’s not hard to imagine what they think as well.)
Nor is that anywhere near close to the end of school bureaucracy. Local public schools are run by locally elected school boards. Michigan has 533, not counting numerous charter schools.
How many charters? The exact number is unclear, but it seems to be more than 300, enrolling around 150,000 students, about a tenth of all Michigan elementary and secondary public school students.
"Local control" is deeply ingrained in Michigan political thinking, although sometimes local control is a thinly disguised excuse for poor quality. Local elections are often influenced by various special interest groups hovering around the edges of the system.
Teacher unions, for example, often play large roles in local school board elections and then negotiate labor contracts with members of those boards they helped elect.
Again, local school boards may or may not agree with the State Board or with the governor or the legislature or, indeed, with each other. Nor are they bound to agree with another layer of regional school groupings, the so-called "intermediate school districts."
So if, after all that, you are confused as to who should be held accountable for Michigan's dismal educational showing …
You aren't alone. Identifying the main culprits isn't easy and nobody I know and respect has any real idea precisely how to do that.
Republicans blame the Michigan Education Association (the state’s largest teachers’ union); those working in the schools people blame the legislature and the governor.
Meanwhile, employers looking for the public schools to produce candidates who can contribute to a skilled and educated workforce throw up their hands in frustration.
What I do know is that the basic structure of Michigan’s school system is very badly confused and dysfunctional, with no single person or institution responsible or capable of being held properly accountable for our miserable state of affairs.
No wonder there are few cries of public outrage or feelings of urgency to fix this by those who govern us.
Because so much of this system was set in place by the state constitution, any move for reform and improvement is difficult.
One of the things I'm waiting for in next year's elections ‒ which include the governorship and every seat in both houses of the legislature ‒ is some discussion of this problem by the candidates and, hopefully, some clear-headed remedies for it.
Clearly, a good place to start would be to have throughout next year’s campaign a robust debate about fixing our schools. Job One should be the simple idea of imposing accountability on the pudding-like education structure that has served us badly for years.
My suggestions: Amend the Constitution to abolish the State Board of Education, which has become a largely ineffective advisory body. Instead, give the governor the power to nominate a state superintendent, who then would be confirmed by the legislature.
Whoever is in charge of the schools would need to set clear objectives. Copy methods successfully used by leading states to improve their own school performance. Hold the governor accountable.
What we need to do as a state in short is quit pussyfooting around the problem of school performance – and get to work fixing it.