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Mich. needs strong education superintendent

State Sen. Phil Pavlov

Michigan is about to get a new superintendent for public instruction for the first time in almost 10 years. Many people don’t even know about this position, provided for in our state constitution, but it is important. Here’s why.

Besides being the face of public education in Michigan, the superintendent takes the laws written by the Legislature and signed by the governor, and implements them with policies — the “devil in the details” — for the public schools our students attend.

He, or she, is also a non-voting member of the state board of education, manages about 500 employees in the Michigan Department of Education, administers about $1 billion annually in federal funding, and interacts with the U.S. Department of Education on Michigan’s behalf.

That’s a lot of influence over public education in Michigan, both academically and financially.

Ideally, the governor would be appointing this cabinet member, but under Michigan’s current structure, the state board of education will be making this decision. It’s imperative they get it right, since so much responsibility rests on this individual’s shoulders.

For starters, let’s hope they pick a visionary leader. Someone who recognizes the changes needed to move Michigan’s education system toward national prominence. Someone who understands and can adapt to the shifting dynamics of education delivery. Someone who will look 10, 20 years into the future, set goals, develop a comprehensive plan for improvement, build consensus and lead the way forward.

Next, let’s hope they appoint someone with a willingness to build strong, productive relationships with the state House and Senate. As the Michigan Supreme Court has stated, “The Legislature has had the task of defining the form and the institutional structure through which public education is delivered in Michigan since the time Michigan became a state.”

Michigan needs a superintendent who will honor the legislative intent behind the laws the people’s representatives write, and who will manage the department to implement those laws with fidelity. The right person for this role is someone who understands and respects the constitutional roles of the legislature, governor and board, and who will use the powers vested in him or her to broker constructive relationships between them.

Let’s hope the next state superintendent will truly believe in, not just acknowledge, Michigan’s long-standing tradition of local control and school choice. This means trusting local districts and charter schools to do what’s right by students. It especially means trusting parents, who certainly know their children’s needs and almost always have their best interests at heart.

Finally, let’s hope the final candidate is able to forge solid working relationships across the entire system, with everyone from educators at the local level right up to the governor. It should be someone who is willing to hear all perspectives, and who is skilled at articulating a vision for pulling those perspectives together into meaningful action. Someone who will communicate proactively and foster a collaborative approach between the department and education stakeholders.

The position of state superintendent can play a key role in achieving excellence for our students, and any partisanship in the selection process must be put aside to do what’s right.

State Sen. Phil Pavlov, R-St. Clair Township, chairs the Senate Education Committee and represents the 25th District.