Editor’s Note: Preserve local control of schools

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News
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State Superintendent Brian Whiston seems to want to be the traffic cop of the school world, issuing citations for behavior he and the State Board of Education don’t like. And while they may have the best intentions, this action could open the door to much more interference at the local level.

The issue came up at last week’s monthly State Board meeting in relation to a southwest Michigan school district’s use of the Redskins mascot, which Native Americans have said is offensive to them. The Paw Paw school board voted last month to uphold the mascot, after much community discussion.

The State Board adopted a resolution in 2003 (and reaffirmed it in 2010), strongly encouraging districts to scrap racially offensive mascots. Upset with the schools that haven’t complied, including the Paw Paw district, Whiston wants to investigate how he could fine districts that don’t fall in line — up to 10 percent of a school district's state aid payment.

The Department of Education has asked for division level advice from the assistant attorneys general they work with, regarding whether Whiston has that authority, says a spokeswoman for Attorney General Bill Schuette.

If he doesn’t, the board also voted to have the department craft language for the Legislature’s consideration that would give the Education Department the ability to issue fines in these cases. Given that many lawmakers would rather see the State Board disbanded, it’s not likely this request will get much traction for now.

It is the broader implications that are most troubling. Take for instance hotly debated guidance the State Board approved in September, advising schools how to handle transgender students — including letting students decide which bathrooms and locker rooms to use, without parental consultation. The guidance, in line with the Obama administration’s May directive, didn’t carry the threat of withheld funding. But the federal guidance did.

For now, federal penalties are off the table, thanks to a new administration that overturned the former guidelines. That should be the case in Michigan, too. If lawmakers give fining power to the state Education Department, however, that could change.

Decisions that hit at the heart of moral and community standards should be left to local school boards and parents, not the whims of bureaucrats.

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