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Michigan’s next superintendent led gains in Kalamazoo, fought GOP policies

Kalamazoo Superintendent Michael Rice, who has worked in education in several states and battled the Republican-led Michigan Legislature on several school policies, will be the next superintendent of Michigan’s public schools.

By a 5-3 vote Tuesday, the State Board of Education agreed to offer the job to Rice, who has been superintendent in Kalamazoo for 12 years. The three dissenting votes favored finalist candidate Randy Liepa, superintendent of Wayne Regional Educational Service Agency.

Rice won the Democratic-majority board’s support a year to the day since Michigan’s last state superintendent, Brian Whiston, died of cancer.

Opinion: Advice for the new Michigan superintendent, from a former one

The Board will now negotiate a contract with Rice, 56, with the anticipation he’ll take over as state superintendent July 1. He’ll have a three-year contract, with a starting salary of $216,000, according to Board President Casandra Ulbrich.

The state superintendent is appointed by the statewide-elected Board of Education, and sits on the governor’s cabinet. The superintendent is chief of the Michigan Department of Education, which provides services and sets policies for the state’s public schools.

“From our perspective, it was important to have someone who not only knows the state of Michigan, but can bring perspectives from other states.” — State Board President Casandra Ulbrich, on the selection of Michael Rice.

Rice comes to the state superintendent job with a dozen years experience leading a diverse, low-income district. Seven-in-10 Kalamazoo students qualify for free or reduced lunch, compared to about 50 percent statewide. The district enrolls more than 900 homeless students.

During Rice’s tenure, the district’s graduation rate has increased from 63 percent to 75 percent; the African-American male grad rate rose from 47 percent in 2013 to 62 percent in 2018.

“I’m not suggesting we’ve arrived,” Rice said in an interview with the board Tuesday morning. “I’m suggesting we’re improving significantly.”

Rice began his career as a high school French teacher in Boston. He was chief financial officer at Fort Wayne (Ind.) Community Schools, and was superintendent in Clifton New Jersey, before coming to Kalamazoo. He was named Michigan Superintendent of the Year in 2015.

“He’s got a stellar reputation in Michigan, but he has a lot of out-of-state experience as well,” Ulbrich said. “It’s always good when someone can bring another perspective to the job.

“A lot of times, when you’re in a position where you’ve always been in the same place, you might have a mindset that doesn’t allow for outside thinking. From our perspective, it was important to have someone who not only knows the state of Michigan, but can bring perspectives from other states.”

Rice becomes superintendent at a critical time for Michigan’s public schools. Michigan students score lowest in the Midwest on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, often called the “nation’s report card.” Our rank has fallen since 2003, the first year Michigan participated in the nationwide test. We are in the bottom-third of states in most measures.

Michigan’s low-income fourth-graders ranked 49th in math in 2017, the most recent test year; white fourth-graders were 46th in reading.

Related: On nation’s report card, Michigan students remain in back of class

Michigan is also below the national average in percentage of adults with a college degree – a key indicator for personal income and state prosperity.

“I don’t think there’s any surprise to an in-state candidate what we’re facing here in Michigan, and how far we’ve got to go to get into the position we want to be in,” Ulbrich said.

Three finalists were interviewed Tuesday. Ann Arbor Superintendent Jeanice Swift was eliminated in an initial, informal vote, leaving Rice and Liepa, the candidate from Wayne County.

Liepa won the support of the two Republicans on the board, Tom McMillin, of Oakland Township, and Nikki Snyder, of Dexter, as well as Lupe Ramos-Montigny, D-Grand Rapids. Voting for Rice were Ulbrich, D-Rochester Hills; Judy Pritchett, D-Washington Township; Tiffany Tilley, D-Southfield; Michelle Fecteau, D-Detroit; and Pamela Pugh, D-Saginaw.

McMillin said at Tuesday’s meeting he favored Liepa because of his experience at both the school district and intermediate school district levels.  

“He understands what the state can do to help (schools) without interfering,” McMillin said. “He knows how to help those who are struggling. And he is strong on parental rights.”

Rice has a reputation for not shying away from a fight, Ulbrich said. That was apparent in his interview Tuesday, when he had harsh words for several Legislature-initiated education policies.

Rice called Michigan’s new third-grade reading policy, which is intended to hold back many third-graders if they aren’t reading at a second grade level or higher, a bad law based on “the false premise that the beatings will continue until reading improves. It’s far too punitive and comes with too few resources.

“We have to improve reading in Michigan,” Rice told the board. “But retention is not good for children. Our answer has to be better than this is a bad law. We need to up our game.”

Rice also is not a fan of the A-to-F school accountability measure passed during the Republican Legislatures’ lame-duck session in December. Under the policy, public schools will be given a letter grade on several metrics.

Rice called the system “simple, neat and wrong. It is foolish. It is not well thought-through. It is a mess.”

Rice said he’d like to go back to the Legislature and ask the body to repeal the A-to-F accountability system and maintain the state’s current accountability model that he said is easy for parents to understand.

“We want a superintendent who is willing to push back on bad policy.” Ulbrich said.

“The things he expressed today are things we’ve heard in the field for years. We want a superintendent who is willing to go to the Legislature and say, ‘Hey, this isn’t going to work, it’s causing chaos and it’s not in the best interest of children.’

“We wouldn’t have hired someone if they weren’t willing to do that,” Ulbrich said.

Paula Herbart, president of the Michigan Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, said, “We look forward to working with Dr. Rice, as we have for many years locally in Kalamazoo. Having a district superintendent with a diverse set of experiences both in and out of the classroom will bring a strong voice for all educators to the Michigan Department of Education.”

Amber Arellano, executive director of the Education Trust-Midwest, which has long supported policies that help the state’s most vulnerable students, pointed out the tough job Rice will have.

“Visionary leadership in leading education states have shaped public education in those places through coherent, equity-minded and student-centered policies, and evidence-based practices,” Arellano said. “Taking Michigan public education from the national bottom to top 10 will require systemic change at all levels.  We hope that Dr. Rice will be the visionary leader that Michigan students need him to be.”

Dan Quisenberry, executive director of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, which represents the state’s charter school industry, said he doesn’t know Rice well, but that he “looks forward to working with him.”

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