May 28, 2014 at 1:00 am

EDUCATION REFORM

Who should run the schools?

Austin (Brookings Institution)

The Detroit News’ May 25 Editorial: “Re-think education governance in Michigan,” raises an important issue: Who sets education policy in Michigan?

Michigan, as the editorial notes, is one of few states with an independent, elected State Board of Education, which our constitution established to provide “leadership and general supervision over all public education.” Now any governor worth their salt would like direct authority over education. And education rightly commands the interest and attention of governor and Legislature alike, who have plenty of influence already, through setting policy priorities and the budget.

But the current dust-up over the state’s school testing regime and disagreement between the Legislature and the State Board of Education, and our appointed superintendent and Department of Education, proves the wisdom of George Romney and those who wrote Michigan’s modern constitution.

They said, since education was so important, it should be placed with a state-wide elected body (to give it political standing) but independent of the governor and Legislature, so its members could take the long-term view of what was best for teaching and learning. The State Board of Education was also given eight-year terms (longer than the U.S. Senate) to free its members from day to day political pressures, and to keep education out of Lansing’s increasingly polarized and politicized “gotcha” politics.

In execution of our work — to set learning standards (like the Common Core math and language arts standards we adopted in 2010) and to determine the best assessment of those standards, the board relies on experienced educators, including our superintendent of public instruction, and experts in the education field, and our own good independent judgment to decide what Michigan children need to learn, and how to test it. And given the need to keep these decisions above politics, we have always during my tenure made decisions about standards and assessments in a unanimous bi-partisan manner.

This thoughtful, long-term attention to Michigan’s children and their learning needs is exactly what the constitution writers intended. They did not want the Legislature in the business of determining the details of what Michigan students would learn in the classroom; knowing that would mean frequent changes, and a more politicized process. Also it is not the State Board and Department of Education disagreeing with the governor today, it’s the Legislature. In this current instance, Gov. Snyder, the State Board of Education, and broader education and business community, including Business Leaders for Michigan, have been working together to first, put in place and keep in place, the rigorous Common Core Standards (which the State Board of Education adopted in 2010, and this Legislature, or at least its Tea Party faction, sought to defund last summer).

We are now looking to persuade the Legislature to not do something political in decoupling the testing program from the standards it is supposed to measure, and take it away from professional educators in the Michigan Department of Education, and turn it over to tax collectors and money investors at Treasury.

The Legislature can and should have a strong interest in getting education policy right. That is why this legislature, and all Michigan citizens who care about our schools and kids, should be happy the constitution sets up a healthy separation of powers in education. After all it is the American way.

John Austin is president of the Michigan State Board of Education.

Austin (Brookings Institution)