Who wins when residents don’t know the people making policy?

OK, alert readers, what’s in common among these people? Richard Zeile, Lupe Ramos-Montigny, Michelle Fecteau, Kathleen Straus. Stumped? How ‘bout these: Eileen Lappin Weiser, Casandra Ulbrich, John Austin, Pamela Pugh Smith.

Still at sea?

They’re all members of the State Board of Education, elected statewide to eight-year terms and constitutionally empowered to provide “leadership and general supervision over all public education” in Michigan. Just last week, they voted to select Brian Whiston, the current school superintendent in Dearborn, as new state superintendent of education, succeeding Mike Flanagan, who has served in the position since 2005.

Student performance in Michigan schools is among the very top priorities of both our leaders in Lansing and ordinary citizens alike. Because the State Board has enormous constitutional power to maintain/reform/improve/blow up (you pick) our schools, you’d think the names and qualifications of members would be familiar to voters throughout Michigan.

Not so.

I doubt if more than one percent of Michigan voters know all their names. Before I started work on this column, I certainly didn’t.

But that isn’t to say they’re without qualifications. Democrat John Austin, the chairman of the board, is one of the smartest and most imaginative people in public service today. Republican Eileen Lappin Weiser is an accomplished solo pianist. Casandra Ulbrich is Vice President for College Advancement and Community Relations at Macomb Community College. Other members are just as capable … but largely unknown.

That’s too bad

As a practical matter, elections for statewide education offices – the State Board of Education and the governing boards of the state’s big three universities – have almost never had to do with educational issues or candidate qualifications. Nominees for these offices are selected every two years by partisan party conventions and presented, residing at the bottom of the ballot, by the political parties to voters. Maybe as a result, candidates for “less important” education offices remain almost unknown to the vast majority of voters because they get almost no coverage in what remains of the state’s news media.

A crapshoot

Who wins is most often determined by whichever party runs best at the top of the ticket. The average vote for these offices is often less than half the vote for governor or president. Those who vote the straight ticket wind up voting for the party’s choice, willy-nilly, while those who split their tickets often don’t vote because they don’t know enough about the candidates.

This means the outcome of these races is not much more than a crapshoot.

Actually, it’s worse than that. With the public largely uninformed about the particulars of any given candidate, it’s a built-in recipe for special interest influence on important state offices.

Here’s why. Both our political parties are to a significant degree controlled by large special interests: Democrats by organized labor, trial lawyers and ethnic minorities; Republicans by business interests and, increasingly, right-wing ideologues. So anybody who hopes to win the GOP nomination for such an office better snuggle up to business, not to mention the Tea Party. Democrats who don’t toe the party line won’t get nominated at their party’s convention.

Things don’t usually turn out quite as bad as all this suggests. Most of the time, the people (regardless of party) who want to serve in these unpaid advisory positions are thoughtful citizens, interested in making Michigan a better place.

But today’s practice of electing unknown candidates with unknown qualifications and unknown stances on the issues makes no sense. It’s manipulative and deceitful to voters. It encourages partisanship where there should be little. It institutionalizes the influence of special interests. The net result is that those who are supposed to determine education policy in Michigan are unaccountable for performance in office.

I should know. I ran for the U of M board of Regents twice, winning once and losing the other. I used to think that electing regents assured that the people had a direct voice in running our universities. These days, I’m not so sure that the system of uninformed voters selecting unaccountable officeholders is good way of carrying out governance.

Indeed, our practice of electing very dimly known candidates to important offices raises troublesome questions for a supposed democratic political system based on elections.

Should we continue to select people to fill important policy positions by election by voters who know very little? Or should there be change to a system of gubernatorial appointments, with advice and consent by the legislature? Should voting be mandatory? It is in Australia. Voter turnout is low and getting lower; Is this a sign of an alienated citizenry or a large-scale yawn by millions who don’t want to get involved? Indeed, given the avalanche of hidden money now pouring into TV ads designed to manipulate uninformed voters, how much legitimacy do elections really have these days?

While we’re quarrelling over whether to fix our terrible roads, such questions might seem abstract and rather academic. But they’re very important, because they strike to the core of what we call a democracy.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Stan Kurzman
Tue, 03/24/2015 - 10:07am
Excerpt from Michigan Constitution: State board of education; members, nomination, election, term. The state board of education shall consist of eight members who shall be nominated by party conventions and elected at large for terms of eight years as prescribed by law. The governor shall fill any vacancy by appointment for the unexpired term. The governor shall be ex-officio a member of the state board of education without the right to vote You offer two alternatives: 1. Appointment by Governor with legislative consent [which would require a constitutional amendment] and 2. Mandatory voting. The first wouldn't change the appointment of "special interest" persons and the second wouldn't change anything...like the "horse to water", you can force a voter to the polls but you can't make 'em vote [especially for down-ticket offices]. In my opinion those seeking nomination for the State Board of Education are remarkably qualified and genuinely interested in the quality of education being provided Michigan children. I don't believe our educational system would be any better served by Gubernatorial appointments and certainly not by mandatory voting.
Tue, 03/24/2015 - 12:34pm
'...nominated by party conventions and elected at large for terms of eight years..' Wow. Scary and very informative why we have the mess we do in education.
Sandra Ritter
Sun, 03/29/2015 - 2:26pm
Right on Stan!
Tue, 03/24/2015 - 10:13am
I regard the state board of education as little more than figurehead positions with the way that the legislature is trying to micromanage education policies. I would rather the public vote for people they don't know than have the governor appoint people with the approval of the legislature, the potential abuse and political gameplaying with that kind of system isn't too hard to figure out.
Richard McLellan
Tue, 03/24/2015 - 10:22am
Phil, you miss the mark when you say the State Board of Education “has enormous constitutional power to maintain/reform/improve/blow up (you pick) our schools.” The State Board’s constitutional power to provide “leadership and general supervision over all public education” turns out not to be a significant power. The real power over public schools is with the legislature and the governor where the constitution provides: “The legislature shall maintain and support a system of free public elementary and secondary schools as defined by law.” The one real power the Board has is to hire and fire that state superintendent of public instruction.
Tue, 03/24/2015 - 12:48pm
Tom, given the small number of people who can name their 2 US senators and US Rep, State Governor, and the VPOTUS, clearly Michigan suffers from election overload. You should throw in all the judgeships and a bunch of county and local positions (electing a drain commissioner?) while you are at it! Clearly Michigan's constitution is far less the inspired document that anyone would expect..
Tue, 03/24/2015 - 2:35pm
Not only do most Michiganders not know the names or background of their State Board of Education, relatively few know the names of the Board of Education of their local school district either. Even parents of school-attending children rarely know their local school board members or superintendent by sight, unless they work for the school district or have a serious complaint. Nor will this get any better if the elections for State Board of Education became non-partisan, as local School Board elections already are. Some of the problem is that "what bleeds, leads" in our mass media, leading to extremely uneven coverage of education stories in the news. Some of the problem is that for decades, local school board elections were deliberately held in May or August, when only the most dedicated single-issue voters would show up. Some of the problem is that while Boards of Education are in theoretical control of the single largest proportion of Michigan's government expenditures, the money is overwhelmingly spent on salaries and benefits for teachers, which has become a sort of political "third rail". A lot of the problem, in my opinion, is that most people don't know enough about education in general to have an informed opinion about the quality of their local schools or any of the issues they face, nor do most of those who aren't parents or educators care. Your "state-wide" conversations showed that almost everyone ranks their local schools as "better than the state average", even when they live in areas with profoundly dysfunctional schools. That's part of why I 'm always quite suspicious of the people upset by the appointment of an Emergency (Financial) Manager for their school district, claiming they've been deprived of a right to democratically elect the people in charge of the schools. Where were these people when the elected School Boards and the top administrators the Board of Ed was supposed to be monitoring were over-spending, under-delivering, and in all too many cases in Detroit, lining the pockets of themselves and their relatives? Do they even know the names of the now-powerless elected officials whose power the Emergency Manager has "usurped"? Probably not. The politics will be different for appointments vs. elections, but the politics will still be very much present. If you ave any doubt, just look at the activities of Michigan's Public Service Commission around renewable energy mandates and utilities' response to the EPA's anti-coal-fired power plant regulations, or cable TV rates and service vs. prices for what's claimed to be broadband Internet access.
Charles Richards
Tue, 03/24/2015 - 5:22pm
Kudos to Anna. This is remarkably well done.
Tue, 03/24/2015 - 3:14pm
"Phil," I agree. People don't know their "policy" makers. Many parents in the state don't know who Richard Mclellan is and the influence he has had on public education. I think the Bridge should do a story on that, no? You at least would not completely disingenuous.
Richard McLellan
Tue, 03/24/2015 - 9:20pm
I think someone should do a story on "Ken." He doesn't even list his full name.
John Q. Public
Wed, 03/25/2015 - 12:29am
That's definitely more cowardly than trying to formulate and implement public policy while hidden from the prying eyes of the public and media, financed by money nobody is allowed to know the source of.
Tue, 03/24/2015 - 10:18pm
It is a ‘crapshoot’, but it isn’t just for the State Board of Education it is for most elected offices. Rather than remove the voter from the process such as Mr. Power wants to see happen with the Board of Education why not talk about how to engage the voters, help them become better informed, better apprise the voters of what those elected are doing in office? Rather than complain about the system we should be talking about how to make the system more effective, consider the spirit and the letter of the system to see what can be done to make it work. Was the system designed to an engaged the voter, to give the individual the ability to choose, to accommodation of prevailing issues? If so why are we talking about how we can help those things happen? I wonder why Mr. Power doesn’t post an article asking readers what they would like to know about candidates for office, what would help them make a better informed decisions, how could they be kept aware of what was being done by those in office, listening to their answers, and getting engaged in the conversation. I wonder how many readers would like to participate in a conversation about how to have better informed voters.
Rob Burgess
Wed, 03/25/2015 - 7:19am
Mr. Powers is certainly correct about we Michiganders' knowledge of State Board of Education and university board members. As a young man, I remember getting to that section of the Michigan ballot and thinking something like: "I know virtually nothing about any of these people, nor what the issues are for these offices, thus I will vote for someone from one of obscure third parties just so that third party can remain on the ballot." I guess in hindsight my theory was then at least there was a little more diversity to the debate? Or perhaps, "do not care" is a more appropriate description of how my ballot was cast. In reality, how much does the average Michigander know about the issues for ANY state government office be it governor, house, senate, Secretary of State or Attorney General? Seriously, how many people can name the Lt. Governor, Attorney General, a state senator or representative? Let alone, how many know how these folks voted on issues or indeed what the issues are? For years, Tim Skubick's weekly program "Off the Record" was about the only Lansing news that was available to us living in the "hinterland" where the Free Press, News, nor State Journal is not our hometown paper. Not that those papers do much better at covering Lansing issues. Most citizens probably do not need the in-depth coverage offered by Gongwer or MIRS for Lansing issues. However, with the last 20 years insurgence of the Internet, folks now can at least have access to the major dailies from Detroit, Lansing, or MLIVE where at least some mention occurs of Lansing matters. Maybe watching "Off the Record" should be mandatory?
Wed, 03/25/2015 - 8:19am
Phil: why don't you write an article on "Skunkworks" ?
Wed, 03/25/2015 - 9:44am
I haven't watched "Off the record" in years, it was interesting sometimes but often I felt like I was sitting in on a conference of insiders talking about arcane policies and political procedures that were not explained well to the average person. The interviews with politicians were usually a waste of time since they stuck to the party line and tried to wiggle out of saying anything controversial and just beat around the bush a lot in their answers (much to the displeasure of Mr. Skubick). Can't blame him.
John C. Stewart
Wed, 03/25/2015 - 1:45pm
I have asked for a Public Education Summit to be held at Eastern Michigan University, Bridge Magazine, WMU, or MSU. I would invite, as experts, Dr. Gary Miron of WMU, Dr. Mitchell Robinson of MSU, Dr. Steven Wellinski of EMU, and Dr. Thomas Pedroni of WSU. There is a huge void of intellectually honest dialogue about Public Education. I am fortunate to have been a practicing attorney in Wayne County, for 37 years, State Rep for 6 years, including Appropriations and Chair of Higher Education. It is time we come together and have an open seminar (please Google - Fred Friendly Seminars). Who is going to accept the challenge of hosting this Summit? I would be glad to be the Moderator.
Chuck Jordan
Wed, 03/25/2015 - 10:39pm
Phil is right, of course, but how much do you know about any candidate? About half of what they say is what people want to hear and the other half lies or equivocation if you prefer. Why is it the people can't be trusted to vote on wolf hunting and emergency managers, but can be trusted to vote on fixing roads? Because the people we elected aren't honest enough to say we can't raise taxes because then people wouldn't vote for us? Phil is right, but we have bigger fish to fry when it comes to education or elections.
Thu, 03/26/2015 - 12:35am
Chuck, Which is it as Mr. Power wants remove the voters from the selection of Board members or have them vote on taxes? Do you simply not trust the voters at all? As for the the honesty of officials, could it be like Mr. Power they don't know what is important to the voter and are floundering because all they hear is what is reported in Lansing and what they hear from their peers? Why not have a conversation about what are important factors each office holder should understand and how they should communicate to the voters? In sports the players know what the expectations are so they know what to work on, in politics nobody knows the expecations so they flounder and seem to be achieved noting . As an example if the expectation were that roads should last for 30 years and we kept score then MDOT, the Governor, the Legislator, the voters could have a report card on if the tax dollars are delivering on what was expected rather then simply hear about spending more money without knowing if those spending really care about what we get for it. Whether it be the State School Board, the Regents for U of M, or an other elected body if they don't know what is expected of them they are unlikely to ever achieve what is needed or wanted. What do you expect of the elected officials and how do you express it to those officials? Mr. Power seems to want to change the system rather talk about what his expecations are or ask readers what they think.
Chuck Jordan
Sun, 03/29/2015 - 7:04pm
Duane, I think you misunderstand me. I trust the voters more than our legislature. They only want the people to vote to raise taxes because they don't have the guts to. People don't want higher taxes so it will be voted down. And the roads and infrastructure and schools will continue to deteriorate until we get some legislators who can govern. Or maybe the people would vote for higher taxes if they knew the money was going to go for what it is supposed to go for FOREVER or until another vote is held.
Mon, 03/30/2015 - 10:31pm
Chuck, I agree with you last point. If they felt the programs and spending were providing the value the spenders claimed there would be more money available. However, if the programs performances and return on spending were being measure/held accountable I doubt more money would be necessary. With regard to your first point, I don't think they Legislators understand what their roles are so they have no performance expectations of the agencies spending the money. I would include the Governor in this lack of expectations, he has yet to talk about holding the agencies accountable for their spending. As an example, if you listen to all the talk of roads it appears that technology has changed everything in our lives and in the state except road construction and maintenance. As best I can tell the reason those promoting the new tax is never mention how we will get better roads that last longer for the added spending is becuase they don;t care and have never asked about it. I ask that of a local City engineer, first he had a blank look on his face and no answer, then when I ask him knew why the roads failed he stuttered and then simpy repeated conventional rationale. He never even asks the companies bidding on the work if they have any ideas to make the roads better.