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Our Editorial: Start at the top with school reform

The Detroit News

There are no shortage of conversations right now about how to improve Michigan’s schools. The data prove that action is needed, and it makes sense to start at the top.

That’s what state Rep. Tim Kelly is doing with his resolution to ax the State Board of Education and allow the governor to appoint the state school superintendent.

The Saginaw Township Republican introduced the measure last month and it’s passed out of the Education Reform Committee, which he chairs. It was also a key recommendation made by Gov. Rick Snyder’s 21st Century Education Commission, which released its report in March.

The resolution deserves the attention of the entire House — and the Senate, although we’re concerned Kelly’s fellow lawmakers may ignore it. That’s what happened when Kelly introduced it last session.

They shouldn’t this time around, because if this state is serious about becoming one of the innovators in education (instead of trailing the rest of the nation), it must rework its governance of K-12 schools.

“There’s a lack of accountability when it comes to education in Michigan,” Kelly says.

That’s true. The state is one of a handful that gives the governor no direct oversight of the state Education Department. Most states offer the governor the ability to appoint the superintendent of schools or at least appoint all or a portion of the governing school board.

In Michigan, the governor can’t do either. The State Board is independently elected and hires the superintendent. That’s led to a fractured system with too many people “in charge” of education. In the end, it’s hard for anything to get done.

Currently, the eight members of the State Board are chosen by party conventions and then put on the statewide ballot. These races don’t get much attention and are heavily influenced by the education labor unions that fund the campaigns.

Until last November when two additional Republicans got elected to the board in an unexpected Trump surge, the board has traditionally been politically lopsided, with Democrats consistently in the majority. Now it’s deadlocked 4-4.

The current board and superintendent are pushing a reform agenda that is separate from the one recommended by the governor’s commission, leaving the state confused about which path to take.

It requires a constitutional change to get rid of the board, so Kelly needs a two-thirds majority in both chambers to put the measure on the statewide ballot. Then voters can have their say.

Thomas Haas, president of Grand Valley State University, testified in support of Kelly’s resolution last month. As chair of Snyder’s education commission, Haas is an important voice. The commission recommended a shakeup of school governance, including the option of doing away with the State Board.

Snyder has said he’s supportive of the measure, but he doesn’t want to lead the effort. Yet now is the time to make this happen. Without a major reform at the top, nothing’s really going to change.