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Editorial: New state school leader must be bold

The Detroit News
Kalamazoo Superintendent Michael Rice

Congratulations to newly appointed Michigan Superintendent Michael Rice. We wish him the best as he gets underway leading the state Department of Education.

The job will not be easy, given Michigan’s shortfalls in student performance and school accountability.

Rice, who has served as Kalamazoo Public Schools superintendent since 2007, was one of three finalists, including Wayne Regional Educational Service Agency Superintendent Randy Liepa and Ann Arbor Superintendent Jeanice Swift. More than 50 had applied for the job.

More:Board taps Kalamazoo school leader Michael Rice as state superintendent

More:Our Editorial: Start at the top with school reform

Rice replaces Sheila Alles, who had filled in the past year following the death of former Superintendent Brian Whiston last May.

The State Board of Education chose Rice on Tuesday in a 5-3 decision. It’s worth noting that the two Republicans voted for Liepa.

Rice must now translate his experience leading a district to leading the state. While Kalamazoo has a diverse student population, one of Rice’s top priorities will be addressing the range of concerns districts face — from rural ones to urban.

The Detroit Public Schools Community District, which is on better footing than it was a few years ago, still faces the most severe challenges in terms of academics and finances. Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti could use a strong partner at the state level.

Whiston had set up a partnership agreement system with the worst-performing schools in Detroit and around the state, and Rice will need to evaluate the effectiveness of that model and what can be done to improve it.

Similar to most in the education establishment, Rice is an advocate for spending more on schools and boosting pay and benefits for teachers. We hope he uses his role to support spending that is tied to outcomes and directed to the schools and students that are most in need.

Rice has also openly expressed his distaste for some reforms passed in recent years by the Legislature. That includes the 2016 third grade reading law and a new A-F school grading system, which he said was “not well thought out.” 

Board President Casandra Ulbrich says these views were a selling point for her, and that the State Board wanted a superintendent willing to push back “on bad policy.”

Yet it’s not the role of the superintendent to decide which laws to follow and which to toss. That is what too often happens in Michigan, however, where education governance remains one of the biggest impediments to real and lasting reforms.

Michigan is one of just six states that doesn’t give the governor the ability to select the State Board or the superintendent — or both. Rather, the statewide-elected Board of Education hires the top school leader, who is not directly answerable to the governor or lawmakers.

We encourage Rice to work with all the stakeholders, and to make sure school districts around the state have the tools they need to follow laws and other directives related to education.