Panel proposes abolishing elected state school board

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

The State Board of Education should either be abolished or its members appointed by the governor, according to a panel commissioned by Gov. Rick Snyder to overhaul Michigan’s lagging performance.

The bifurcated nature of school oversight — the elected state school board is not accountable to the governor — has long frustrated some school and government leaders and has made comprehensive school reform in the state difficult to achieve. Tackling this would require voter approval of a constitutional amendment, but reformers view it as a much-needed and overdue approach to creating a cohesive education vision in Michigan.

Snyder’s 21st Century Education Commission is expected to release its recommendations to the governor on Friday, and the group’s executive summary lays out a challenging action plan to improve education in Michigan. The Detroit News obtained a copy of the outline Wednesday.

“The governor’s intent with this commission was to get as much as possible done before he leaves office and then provide a blueprint for the future,” says Doug Rothwell, CEO of Business Leaders for Michigan. The corporate group is an advocate for improving K-12 schools and investing more in higher education to make Michigan a Top 10 state. “On education, so much needs to be done that we need take good ideas and run with them.”

The recommendation to revamp governance is one of nine major recommendations in the report, but it is the one that could have the most impact. It is also the agenda item the commission says the state should prioritize in the short term. Michigan is one of only seven states that doesn’t allow the governor to appoint the state superintendent or board members.

“At the state level, the governor, Legislature, Michigan Department of Education and Michigan State Board of Education all, to varying degrees, direct state policy,” the report states. “Michigan must ask voters to decide how best to align state educational policy with accountability through the governor by placing a constitutional amendment on the ballot to allow the governor to either appoint the members of the SBE or directly appoint the state superintendent and then abolish the SBE altogether.”

Snyder created the commission by executive order last March. And the 25 members were appointed in May, 16 of whom were chosen by Snyder. The initial deadline for filing the recommendations was Nov. 30, but that was extended when it became clear the commission needed more time. Thomas Haas, president of Grand Valley State University who served as chair of the commission, said the group put in countless hours.

Other reform priorities outlined in the report include:

■Elevating the education profession by boosting teacher preparation programs and increasing certification requirements

■Offering educators more support in adopting education priorities, in the form of state resources and tools

■Creating a more effective funding system, with an emphasis on high-need students

■More access to post-secondary education

■A greater state investment in early education

■Enhanced accountability through a stronger assessment system and the collection of relevant data

■More parental partnership, by encouraging parental involvement and connecting human services to schools

■Access to quality learning environments, which means insuring all students go to school that’s safe and equipped with proper technology; charter schools should also be eligible for facility aid from the state

“In an economy where a superior education is the most reliable ticket to a bright future, Michigan’s public education system is failing our children,” the report states. “It is hard to imagine higher stakes for our state and its families.”

The report already has critics, including from some within Snyder’s own party. State Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Saginaw Township, is not impressed with the recommendations and doesn’t believe they’ll lead to better outcomes. He thinks the commission should have focused on remedies such as more school choice options, which other states are implementing. He is supportive, however, of overhauling governance and he’s previously called for the disbanding of the state board.

“I don’t know how a Republican governor stands by something like this,” says Kelly, who chairs the House Education Reform Committee and the appropriations K-12 school aid subcommittee. “This is just giving the reins to the status quo.”

Others are more hopeful and would like to see the governor accomplish much of this blueprint.

“I believe the governor is truly invested in moving this forward,” says Eileen Weiser, a member of the commission and a GOP member of the State Board of Education. “I’m hoping that the Legislature’s wisdom will unite with his vision to get these reforms done in the next two years.”

The report explains the urgent nature of education reform in the state, and offers an overview of how Michigan students have fallen in their performance on national standardized tests. Michigan also has a low post-secondary graduation rate, which the group finds alarming given the demands of a global economy.

“Michigan’s educational decline is devastating for our students, families and communities,” says Amber Arellano, executive director of The Education Trust-Midwest. “We’re pleased to see greater consensus on the need to follow best practices from leading education states. Now, Michigan needs to move from talking about becoming Top 10 to taking the actions that will move us in that direction.”