Our editorial: Elected state ed boards don’t work

The Detroit News

Prior to the sexual abuse scandal that has rocked Michigan State University, chances are you probably hadn’t paid much attention to its Board of Trustees. Now, those trustees are under a spotlight. The university’s bungled handling of this horrible situation has drawn needed attention to how Michigan chooses these school leaders.

Many, including this newspaper, have called for the eight elected trustees to step down, following the statements of more than 200 young women who related their stories of abuse at the hands of Dr. Larry Nassar and MSU’s lackluster response, even when administrators were alerted to what was going on.

The MSU faculty senate Tuesday cast a vote of no confidence in the trustees.

The situation at MSU has sparked a broader discussion about changing how these boards are chosen.

The state is alone in how the top three universities — MSU, University of Michigan and Wayne State University — select their governing boards. The state constitution mandates these boards be chosen in statewide elections (on partisan ballots). Trustees serve eight-year, rotating terms and have “general supervision” of the universities and are responsible for choosing school presidents.

Michigan’s other 10 public university boards are appointed by the governor, which is much more in line with how it’s done elsewhere.

Similarly, we’ve made the case for several years that the State Board of Education is an ineffective institution, similarly chosen in statewide elections.

A new resolution introduced by a state lawmaker seeks to overhaul how these four boards are selected — and would go a long way to putting the state on par with its peers.

Only seven states, including Michigan, offer the governor so little direct control over K-12 schools. In other states, the governor either appoints the education board members or the head education official — or some mix of these powers.

Being an outlier in this area has not benefited Michigan, given the state’s continued slipping in its K-12 performance.

A new leadership structure could help.

That’s why Rep. James Lower, R-Cedar Lake, wants to put the question before voters. Since it would involve a constitutional change, he needs a two-thirds majority of both the House and Senate to get the proposal on the general election ballot.

Rep. Tim Kelly, who chairs the House Education Reform Committee, has similarly introduced resolutions to do away with the state board, something the Saginaw Township Republican refers to as a “nameless, faceless” body. The same can be said about the university boards.

“If there was ever a window, it would be right now,” says Lower, given the situation at MSU, which he calls “frightening.”

Lower says he needs to bring on “nine or 10” Democrats in the House to pass the measure. This shouldn’t be a partisan issue. Michigan should learn from what has worked in other states and build a new framework from that.

The current setup isn’t working well, and this would be a good time to do something about it.