Give the pink slip to State Board of Ed

Dennis Lennox

Quick, name the eight members of the State Board of Education.

Stumped? You aren’t alone because not only can’t most Michiganians name a single member, but most don’t even cast a vote on the ballot line for this very obscure extension of state government’s executive branch. Even Wikipedia, which is full of detailed entries on all sorts of useless subjects, won’t tell you anything about the members.

Independent of the governor, the State Board of Education is elected statewide for eight-year terms with Democrats holding a 6-2 majority (Gov. Rick Snyder and retiring Superintendent of Public Instruction Michael Flanagan are additional non-voting members).

Jointly, the members are commissioned by the state Constitution with the “leadership and general supervision over all public education.”

Additionally, they have the vague constitutional duty of being the “general planning and coordinating body for all public education, including higher education.”

While it possesses significant constitutional authority — a legacy of the Jacksonian democracy-infused 1850 state constitution, which did away with appointed state officeholders outside of the governor in favor of electing just about every office, no matter how great or small — the political reality has long been that the governor and Legislature control K-12 public education. As one senior GOP grandee with an extensive background in issues related to public education said, “No one considers them [the members] worth the effort.”

What practical say the State Board of Education does have in Lansing is voiced through the superintendent, who the members hire to serve as the day-to-day head of public education.

This makes the superintendent accountable to neither Snyder nor legislators, despite the fact they are the ones who take the public’s criticism.

This creates a significant constitutional quagmire as evident in the past with the Legislature’s debates over Common Core, which were actually adopted by the State Board of Education long before most legislators ever heard mention of the national standards.

More recently, it has been Flanagan’s retirement as superintendent that has made the case for real reform by abolishing the State Board of Education, with the superintendent becoming an appointee of the governor, subject to confirmation by the Senate.

True, real reform wouldn’t be immediate as a statewide vote is required to implement the necessary constitutional amendment. Still, this wonky issue is perfect for Snyder, the self-styled nerd who has made “reinventing Michigan” his top priority.

Snyder should take this up before further tax dollars are spent in the hiring of the next superintendent — a process already overshadowed by the partisan litmus test imposed onto it by state board president John Austin, an Ann Arbor Democrat who had publicly explored running against Snyder in this year’s election.

Not only is the present system of public education governance in Michigan confounding, but the State Board of Education’s political irrelevance makes it impossible to justify its continued existence.

Dennis Lennox is a columnist for the Morning Sun of Mount Pleasant. Follow @dennislennox on Twitter.

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