The Michigan Board of Education must go

Editor’s note: Phil Power is founder and chairman of The Center for Michigan, which includes Bridge Magazine. His position on a resolution to do away with the Michigan Board of Education does not reflect the stance of the Center, which does not take a position on this issue; nor does it influence the nonpartisan journalism of Bridge Magazine.

The Michigan House of Representatives House Education Reform Committee invited me to testify last week, and I was happy to do so. The subject was a measure to abolish the State Board of Education, introduced by Chairman Tim Kelly (R-Saginaw Twp.)

Kelly is a no-nonsense conservative Republican with a gift for putting complicated things in simple terms.

His history with things educational in Michigan goes all the way back to the days of Gov. John Engler, who left office in 2003. But Kelly is unlikely to be in the legislature long. Assuming his appointment is confirmed by the U.S. Senate, he'll start serving this fall as assistant secretary for career, technical and adult education, working for another Michigander, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

The subject of the hearing was Kelly's resolution to do away with the State Board of Education, the eight-member group that is given by the Michigan Constitution the primary role in "leadership and general supervision over all public education."

The board’s duties include appointing the Superintendent of Public Instruction, currently Brian Whiston, who runs the sprawling Michigan Department of Education.

Why abolish the board? Kelly's concern is the lack of accountability in the Michigan public school system, where over the past decade student achievement has plummeted for all demographic groups and in nearly every subject. Kelly thinks the Board of Education fudges on the answer to the question, "Who's responsible for the terrible results for kids in Michigan schools?"

He believes that if we got rid of the Board, things would be simpler and it would be much easier to see who to hold accountable.

I happen to think he's right, and I so testified.

Few citizens know much about the Board of Education, which has eight members, each elected statewide to staggered eight-year terms. This is most decidedly not a nonpartisan body.

Candidates are nominated by the Democratic and Republican state conventions. Although currently divided four to four, in recent years, Democrats have almost always had a majority. In the past, the Board has too often been the scene of a fair amount of ideological hair-pulling, most recently over things like what bathroom transgender kids should use, but things now seem calmer.

Nevertheless, the mere existence of the board, which mainly has only an advisory role, is yet another example of how our state Constitution seems designed to fudge accountability for school performance among the governor, the state board, various legislative committees and the hundreds of local school boards in the state.

Add to that mix the fact that members of the state board are essentially unknown. Remember, there are eight, evenly divided between R's and D's. I bet there are not 50 people in all of Michigan (not counting higher-ups at the Department of Education) who can name all the members of the board.

For your information, current members are:

  • Michelle Fecteau (D-Detroit), Secretary

  • Tom McMillin (R, Lansing), Treasurer

  • Pamela Pugh (D-Lansing)

  • Lupe Ramos-Montigny (D, Grand Rapids)

  • Nikki Snyder (R-Lansing)

  • Casandra Ulbrich (D, Rochester Hills), Co-President

  • Eileen Lappin Weiser (R, Ann Arbor)

  • Richard Zeile (R, Lansing)

So far as I can tell, each are well-intentioned Michigan citizens, deeply concerned with kids and their education. They devote countless hours to an unpaid job that involves studying mounds of records and reports and trying to make sense out of the tangled mess that is Michigan school practice and politics.

Yet they are unknown, elected statewide by the voters who simply have no idea who they are, what their credentials for office might be, or their policy preferences.

They tend to be elected not on their own merit, but by straight-ticket voters. When President Obama swept to victory in Michigan in 2008, Democratic candidates were elected to the board.

When Republican Donald Trump narrowly carried Michigan last year, the GOP state board candidates prevailed.

All this led to a fair amount of conversation at last week's committee meeting. Some pointed to the oddity of voters being asked to elect people to very important policy-making positions about whom they know essentially nothing. Is this not an instance of democracy run amok, relying on electing the unknown by the unknowing?

Responses to this had to do with how important it is to maintain public confidence ‒ even if symbolic ‒ that those who are asked to take important positions in our governance system are selected to do so by the public, even though the process of selection is, well, flawed.

I personally and intimately know something about this debate, having been in a similar position years ago when I twice ran for election statewide to the University of Michigan's Board of Regents.

Governors of our three major universities are elected the same way as members of the state board of education. The voters had no idea who I was nor why I should (or should not) be elected.

People I met on the campaign trail were uniformly polite.

I doubt anything I had to say about these things made much of a difference in my races, in which I won once and then lost eight years later, in a year in which my party had a very weak candidate at the top of the ticket. I used to think there was something symbolically important to have one's entry into office sanctioned by public will.

But these days, I'm not so sure.

To their credit, both Republicans and Democrats have been responsible overall in their nominations for both the state board of education and for the boards of Wayne State, Michigan State and U-M.

But suppose either party convention gets steam-rolled by a bunch of wing nuts? Then, expecting an unknowing public to pick the right slate is playing dice with truly important matters.

And, when you think of how important education is to our state’s future, this issue may be the most important of all.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Tue, 10/17/2017 - 7:44am

A very weak editorial, his main complaint is the lack of accountablity and the fact most people have no idea who these people are. He makes no case as to who would take accountability instead of them and how anything would be different and as far as not knowing who these people are seems pointless, the same argument could be made more most judges, county commissioners etc. Mr. Powers seems frustrated by the lack of progress in educational achievement in Michigan and is simply looking for a scapegoat.

Suzanne Tiemstra
Tue, 10/17/2017 - 9:53am

The reasoning in this comment is excellent. Voter apathy and ignorance is a big problem in a democracy. That said, I would rather have a group of people than one appointed person making decisions about education. Although I am generally against term limits, in this case I think it would be appropriate.

Fri, 10/20/2017 - 1:44am

The reason for voter ignorance is because organization like Bridge are unwilling to engaging readers to develop a set of criteria for evaluating candidates for each office. Mr. Power has complained about campaign spending repeatedly over the years but he has never been willing to talk about why their is so much spending [people want to be informed but have no consistent criteria for evaluating and no credible source of information]. The spending rises to fill the void of useable information. Even the 'Truth Squad' does nothing to help voters evaluate candidates, all it does is play editorialized game of campaign 'I Gotcha', they offer nothing about the office or the candidates attributes.
Mr. Power privately has his own criteria [I suspect a very insightful list with his long involvement with Michigan politics, and he surely wouldn't rely on a Party label] but he is unwilling to share his criteria that with reader to even use as a starting point for reader to develop their becoming informed.
I would think developing a better informed electorate would have much impact on the governance Michigan than establishing a new scheme for districting.

If we truly want to improve the quality of candidates and elected legislatures we could go a long way to achieving that if collectively we develop a set of criteria for assessing candidates and that candidates could use to assess themselves.

Le Roy G. Barnett
Tue, 10/17/2017 - 8:55am

Phil Power is worried that, under the present system, either party's convention could get "steam-rolled by a bunch of wing nuts" and put some radicals on the ballot for the Michigan Board of Education. If that happened, the moderate political slate would have a great advantage at the polls. Under his proposed system, if a "wing nut" gets elected governor, the Department of Education goes in the tank. I'll stick with the status quo, thank you.

Tue, 10/17/2017 - 9:02am

And what is Rep Kelly's agenda? If he has an association with Engler and Devos, I am highly suspect about what he claims. It has become routine for Republicans to lie about their intent. I would suspect Kelly's real agenda is to get rid of a group he and other conservatives view as a thorn in their side because the Board of Education has historically staked out views that have been contrary to conservative doctrine. Looking back at their policy statements over the past 15-20 years, they have consistently advocated for students.
Board statements are available at,4615,7-140-5373_5382---Y_2004,00.html

Suzanne Tiemstra
Tue, 10/17/2017 - 9:57am

An excellent comment because of the extreme view of Republicans that for-profit and charter schools would be better than traditional neighborhood public schools. There is little evidence that their theory is born out in reality. The biggest problem with our schools is obviously poverty and poor health. Address these problems and school performance would improve significantly.

Tue, 10/17/2017 - 8:38pm

Our current educational system is broken, and the continued reallocating money to charter schools has been the biggest failure in the last generation. I am glad Rep. Kelly is going Washington with Devos, who is doing exactly what she did in MI on the National scene. The only thing I like about Trump is he is draining the swamp in MI.

There are so many innovative things going on throughout our country in education and many states have already had an upsurge in student results.

Educators should be the ones making decisions about education, not politicians. Devos was only interested in getting her pet projects funded in the state of MI and like Trump she is now the destroyer in chief of education.

Steve Smewing
Tue, 10/17/2017 - 10:32am

Anybody, I mean anybody who defends the current education system in any way shape or form must have a stake in the current broken system.

To me there is way too much talking. Currently we are collecting plenty of data. It is being wasted, very wasted. Being a true data analyst is a profession or talent. The current data has so much actionable screaming numbers that an entry level data analyst could offer clear and data backed actions.

Sadly, this is not done. We have multiple generations who went through K-12 and even college and did not actually learn math.

Any of you even know how mortgage interest from your mortgage payments are figured out? It is actually easy to figure out when you actually know math. Data sets are the same.

Directional actions should be a common practice backed by data and void of party ideology.

Fri, 10/20/2017 - 2:00am

I defend the current system until you or other can describe the material harm it has done.
Mr. French use California as his model for the proposed change, but he fails to describe the impact on the government of California. I wonder if he were to include in his article the amount the California debt and taxes have increased since the change in their districting scheme if that would be seen as such a glowing success.
The theoretical justification I have heard [ from those asking for my supporting signature and form proponents in articles such as this] never describe in how over the 200 years 'gerrymandering' has specifically harmed Michigan, nor how it would improve the governance or the quality of candidates/elected officials. They won't even discuss how historic issues that have been discussed in the courts of underrepresentation of 'minority' groups have been addressed by 'gerrymandering' to ensure 'minority' group representation in places like Lansing.
I will defend the current districting method until you and others will describe how this change will remedy physical harmed done by 'gerrymandering' or how it will improve the quality and quantity of quality candidates. I even wonder if Mr. French or M. Power [a proponent of this change] will or can describe a quality candidate or office holder let alone how this proposed change will bring more of them to Lansing.
This is much like the old magicians slide of hand distract you here with grand more claims and let the reality of nothing will change in Lansing slide by.

Sun, 10/22/2017 - 9:42am

Gerrymandering denies me representation. It elects extremist politicians that don't even bother with constituents, it destroyed my pension, gives away my money to the rich, broke my schools, and does the opposite of the voters wishes in every poll.

Tue, 10/17/2017 - 9:15am

Phil where us your proposal to replace the state board with a better and more accountable structure! I agree the state board is not very effective despite loving Kathy Strauss now retired! But placing this under direct control of govenor dies not assure good work! So this topic merits some more discussion ! Soon?

Tue, 10/17/2017 - 11:32am

I agree!
After the state legislature just approving (and the governor signing) "dark" money in elections I think it is ridiculous to think having the governor appoint the state board would be more accountable.
To me this is just another effort to make all decisions in Lansing. In the last thirty years or so there has been a steady flow of local power being eroded by the powers in Lansing.
I have come to expect much more insight from Mr Powers editorials.

Fri, 10/20/2017 - 2:03am

'Dark money' only exists because we have no quality information/criteria makes us better informed.
'Dark' money dries up when the light of quality information for assessing candidates shines in our election process so voters can make better informed decisions.

Kevin Grand
Tue, 10/17/2017 - 11:44am

All compelling arguments, except for one VERY glaring detail that proponents tend to overlook; once we replace the Michigan BoE, it will be replaced with...what?

I don't disagree with Mr. Power's arguments that were talking about a superfluous layer of government, much like the intermediate school districts whom most Michigan Residents could not identify its members (explain how THEY are elected) or even its function, the glaring problem with Rep. Kelly's resolution is that it places the appointment authority directly in the hands of the governor.

How badly can that get screwed up?

Just ask the likes of Liane Shekter-Smith, Stephen Busch, Darnell Earley, or Nick Lyon about what happens when a governor appoints someone who doesn't care about the outcomes of their actions.

I'm all for scrapping the BoE, provided all of its powers reverted back to the local level where it originated.

At least that way, you won't see people staying in that office for very long when test scores are allowed to crater for as long as the Michigan BoE has allowed or begin to engage in social engineering that most people do not condone.

Tue, 10/17/2017 - 7:35pm

Kevin, who says it should be replaced with anything? We elect State reps and senators, they can supply oversight. If you don't like the result elect someone else! Is anyone saying the existing board is a success?

Kevin Grand
Wed, 10/18/2017 - 4:49am

I believe that you've misunderstood my comments above, Matt.

Long before the idea took hold that government is the solution to everything under the sun (and the bigger the better), most power was concentrated at the local level.

Over time, that power was shifted (stolen?) by regional, state and eventually the federal government, who felt that it knew best how to run things.

I'd prefer to see a return to what worked before.

Thu, 10/19/2017 - 6:57am

Kevin, I'd go one better. Forget local control. In spite of what you think they don't know your kids. You as the parent should make the decision. School assignment by zip code is the worst idea.

Kevin Grand
Sun, 10/22/2017 - 12:29pm

From a historical standpoint, school districts preceded zip codes (and in some cases even many Michigan cities themselves).

But since SoC has utterly destroyed the school districts surrounding cities like Detroit, I don't see any problem with parents living in those now-failing districts with sending their children to other district that would welcome them. Places where they feel their children can learn the best without being encumbered by students whose parents feel that schools are merely day care centers to be dumped of for most of the day.

Michigan Observer
Tue, 10/17/2017 - 5:46pm

"Why abolish the board? Kelly's concern is the lack of accountability in the Michigan public school system, where over the past decade student achievement has plummeted for all demographic groups and in nearly every subject. Kelly thinks the Board of Education fudges on the answer to the question, 'Who's responsible for the terrible results for kids in Michigan schools?'" Consider that we have had the same educational structure since we adopted our current constitution in the early sixties, and that "over the past decade student achievement has plummeted for all demographic groups and in nearly every subject. " If our educational structure hasn't changed, but we're suddenly getting markedly worse results, how likely is it that those worse results are attributable to that educational structure?

Of course, as a liberal, Mr. Power is committed to the view that every failure and problem is due to the environment, to institutions. And thus for him, the appropriate question is: 'Who's responsible for the terrible results for kids in Michigan schools?", rather than "Why are our educational results so poor?" He would find J. D. Vance's excellent book "Hillbilly Elegy" dishearteningly enlightening. His description of the culture of Appalachian working class whites makes it clear where much of the fault lies. It should be noted that the South and much of the upper Midwest has been particularly hard hit by the opioid epidemic of the last decade.

He goes on to say that the board "has only an advisory role," and goes on to say
"So far as I can tell, each (member) are well-intentioned Michigan citizens, deeply concerned with kids and their education. They devote countless hours to an unpaid job that involves studying mounds of records and reports and trying to make sense out of the tangled mess that is Michigan school practice and politics." And, "To their credit, both Republicans and Democrats have been responsible overall in their nominations for both the state board of education and for the boards of Wayne State, Michigan State and U-M."

That leaves the accountability question. Suppose we adopt Mr. Power's suggestion, and have the Governor appoint the state Superintendent of Education and set education policy. Then what? How would the Governor improve education? What policies should he pursue?
Or is the Governor supposed to go around the state impressing on parents the importance of a good education ? Actually, the famous Perry project conducted in Ypsilante
several decades ago, did have significant success with fairly intrusive family interventions. The students involved didn't necessarily do better academically, but they did have significantly better graduation rates and success in their adult lives.

Bridge could serve a useful function by closely examining the trajectory of our educational results over the last fifteen years or so. Was the decline gradual and steady, or sudden? Did it coincide with families economic distress during the severe recession? Was the effect immediate, or was there a lag? What role, if any, did variation in funding play?

Thu, 10/19/2017 - 7:05am

MO, your memory is too short. "A Nation At Risk" came out in the Regan admin sounding the alarm of our failing ed system then. I don't recall Michigan being exempted then. The education bureaucracy has been on a 50 year road to where we are now.

Michigan Observer
Sun, 10/22/2017 - 9:56pm

Matt may be right that our educational system has been declining for fifty years, and we should make a sustained effort to examine why that is the case. But I was addressing Mr. Power's assertion that " over the past decade student achievement has plummeted for all demographic groups and in nearly every subject. ", and his attempt to tie that decline to the existence of the State Board of Education.

Sun, 10/22/2017 - 10:47am

The Perry preschool project did indeed make a significant difference in the adult lives of the children involved. What happened to the tenets of that program? They have been forgotten in the rush to sponsor charter schools to assure the affluent receive free education in a "preferred" setting.

Michigan Observer
Sun, 10/22/2017 - 10:19pm

What were the tenets of that project? It seems to me that they involved trying to inject some bourgeois, middle class values into what were often chaotic, unstable situations that were not suitable conditions for raising healthy, successful children. J.D. Vance, in his book "Hillbilly Elegy", recounted a conversation with a high school teacher who said that people were always blaming the schools for the failures of their students, but failed to recognize that many of the students were being raised by wolves.

Sharon says the tenets of that program "have been forgotten in the rush to sponsor charter schools to assure the affluent receive free education in a "preferred" setting." It seems to me that charter schools have been principally serving the non-affluent. And very well indeed in many cases.

Tom House
Tue, 10/17/2017 - 7:25pm

Wow, Phil, your taking a pretty strong position on the value of the State Board of Ed., bu I'm not sure you're basing your position on solid reasoning. If senator Kelly or you are looking to force more accountability for the failures and struggles of our public schools, you might want to focus on some of the actions related to education that Kelly and his caucus have taken over the past decade. Certainly the State Boad is an easy target, and most of us can agree that it might be an unnecessary body. You also might consider what would fill the education leadership vacuum. Maybe a superintendent or secretary appointed by the Governor would be a model yo could support. That is sort of like the federal model that resulted in Secretary Devos. How is that working out for public education?

Chuck Jordan
Tue, 10/17/2017 - 7:54pm

I didn't know that Phil was an anarchist. His editorial is a great argument to abolish government.

John Q. Public
Tue, 10/17/2017 - 8:38pm

Education’s problems didn’t start, but they most certainly worsened, when the state Board of Education and the professionals in the Department of Education were emasculated by the state executive and legislative branches seeking to monetize the education system for their campaign benefactors over the past two decades.

Even if this move created more accountability—and it won’t in any real sense of the word, because even though we’ll know who to blame, we won’t be able to do anything about it until the horse is not only out of the barn, but also is twenty miles down the road—that’s not the problem to be solved. Education is.

I propose that a much better solution--for democracy, for accountability and for education--would be for state-level education administration to mirror the model at the local level: both the school board elections and the budget are separate from municipal government, and the elected officials not only appear on a non-partisan ballot, but political parties don’t get to nominate them. The best part of this proposal is that it will remove the budget for K-14 education from the legislature and place it in the hands of a representative body elected to serve no other purpose.

The board not only should not be eliminated, but also its size should be quintupled and members elected by districts. Since Reynolds v. Sims fifty-some years ago made the state senate superfluous from a representative republic standpoint, this would be a good way to repurpose it. Every single board member now is from a handful of urban areas, and most are nominated as a reward for their party service and loyalty, not because they have any tremendous insight into education policy or administration. I can’t name more than a few state representatives or senators, either, but I know who mine are because I’m not, as I must for the state board, voting strictly for someone who, whatever their other qualifications, is at the heart of the matter a party hack who lives hundreds of miles away.

Here’s a different perspective on accountability. The video of the hearing Mr. Power spoke at can be found here: It’s the Education Reform committee meeting of October 12. Interesting testimony--particularly Russ Bellant's. He's a former candidate for the Detroit City Council. Bellant--whose testified about fifty-five minutes in after Power and Thomas Haas were through--seized on the notion of holding the governor (or anyone else) accountable through the ballot box and pumped it full of more holes than the back wall of a shooting range. His Exhibit A? The EM law for which the voters “held the legislature accountable”, only to be summarily ignored and their will as expressed at the ballot box usurped.

Bellant's testimony was captivating. He was a refreshing change from the sycophantic genuflecting that is usually seen in those hearings, showing no reluctance to call out the legislative and executive branches for their outright contempt for the will of the people. He bluntly called the resolution exactly what it is: a blatant attempt to consolidate power in the hands of fewer and fewer people while insulating them from any accountability.

It was noteworthy that not one member of the committee even bothered to try to contradict him. They probably all had the good sense to realize how ridiculous they'd have looked.

It’s true that the state BoE and the legislature can’t co-exist under the current system, but Mr. Power, Mr. Kelly and the Haas-chaired commission propose to cut out the vital organs instead of the cancerous tumors.

Mitchell Robinson
Wed, 10/18/2017 - 8:28am

Perhaps the most uninformed and ignorant piece I've read in Bridge. Very disappointed to see this get published...someone has an axe to grind. Go whine on your Facebook wall Mr. Power.

Thomas Cunningham
Wed, 10/18/2017 - 9:06am

I hear your argument, but I don’t agree that we should resort to a politically appointed board merely because the electorate has been rendered too ignorant, lazy, or numb to care. The same could be argued about almost any elected office below President. I’d prefer we look to solutions that reinvigorate healthy dialog, engage large voter participation, and level the playing field. I’m sure we can think of a few better ideas that can move us forward, other than “punting” on fair elections.

Wed, 10/18/2017 - 9:56pm

Mr. Power seems to take a convoluted path to eliminating the state Board of Education. If no one can describe any successes or any harm done, if the Board has no direct responsibility or authority for the Michigan educational system, it has no role in day-to-day activities of the Michigan educational system, then the Board has become a make work function for the staffers that support them, they become a financial burden where money can be better spent elsewhere.

End the Michigan Board of Education.

Oj Ttocs
Sat, 10/21/2017 - 8:31pm

I am distressed by your position, Phil. Drip, drip more democracy subsumed by the Powers (no pun, really) that be. Your mission in life has been to help us understand the Board of Ed better. It is decidedly partisan in practice, and always has been. Your job is to shed sunshine into the corners of democracy like this.

Instead of stepping up like a proper member of the fourth estate, you want to lay down your pen and hand the people's power over to the rulers.

I can't tell you how sad that makes me. Did you dislike the term Lügenpresse, so you want to curry favor now? I simply don't understand how you could abandon the people like this.

Ann Rogers
Sun, 10/22/2017 - 11:49am

I agree! I was teaching when this expensive and locally destructive board was put in place. Traverse City at that time was considered one of the premier systems in the state. Since then we have been restricted by eternal testing, confused by ever-changing curriculum, and named over-worked, under-appreciated teachers for all the problems.
How about putting the emphasis on kids, respecting teachers for their caring and expertise and treating schools as thinking institutions instead of corporations.