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Bridge Michigan
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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.

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