Whitmer announces leader of new education agency that launches Friday

A woman wearing a dark top and a black skirt stands at a podium in front of a large Michigan state seal.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks at a press conference in early 2023, in Romulus, Michigan. A new Michigan education department conceived by the governor launches Friday. (Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

A new Michigan education department conceived by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer launches Friday. Supporters say they hope it brings cohesion to a fragmented education system. But some wish the governor had gone further to shake up a system that has struggled for decades.

In announcing the Michigan Department of Lifelong Education, Advancement, and Potential in July, Whitmer stressed the need to better support students at both ends of their educational journey: preschoolers headed toward kindergarten and young adults after graduation from high school.

If nothing else, the department, known by its acronym MiLEAP, will do something critics of the current system have demanded for years: make the governor’s office more directly accountable for educational performance in the state.

The department’s director, Michelle Richard, previously the governor’s senior education adviser, steps into a cabinet-level position in the Whitmer administration. That proximity, for better or worse, ties MiLEAP’s success or failure to the state’s top elected official.

When Whitmer unveiled MiLEAP through an executive order last summer, she was careful to note it was meant to complement, not replace, the work of the State Board of Education, which oversees the Michigan Department of Education, which in turn oversees K-12 education in the state.

While members of the state board said they feared MiLEAP represented an incursion on its constitutional independence, Whitmer said in a statement Friday that MiLEAP is more focused on the endgame of education.

“Every Michigander deserves a path to ‘make it in Michigan’ with strong,

lifelong learning support and a path to a good job, but for too long, we have thought of education as just K-12,” Whitmer said. “We know that’s not good enough, which is why MiLEAP will tackle bold goals like expanding access to pre-K for all 4-year-olds, offering more affordable paths after graduation to get a higher education or skills training, and forging strong partnerships with our employers so they can get a good-paying, family-sustaining job.”

More than 300 people are being transferred from existing state departments to MiLEAP, where they will work on issues including child care licensing, before- and after-school programming, and college scholarships.

In Richard, the governor has tapped an ally who was instrumental in the administration’s efforts to make college more affordable for Michigan residents. Richard helped with the rollout of the state’s tuition-free community college program.

Some education experts told Bridge they hope the new department will speed Whitmer’s ability to work on education policy initiatives.

While state board President Pamela Pugh — like Whitmer, a Democrat — told Bridge she will “remain vigilant” to ensure MiLEAP does not step on the board’s authority, other state education leaders said they are hopeful it will allow Whitmer to take action on key issues.

“MiLEAP helps Gov. Whitmer be able to move forward her education priorities in the areas that MiLEAP covers,” said Venessa Keesler, president and CEO of Launch Michigan, a nonprofit aimed at reimagining the state’s education system.

“It gives her some control over pieces in the education system and to move some things faster and with more concerted focus,” Keesler said.

Whitmer has set a goal of ensuring that 60% of working-age adults in Michigan hold a college degree or skills certificate by 2030. (The number is currently about 50.5%.)

“She’s creating a system that’s going to enhance that goal, to accelerate those numbers,” said John Severson, executive director of the Michigan Association of Intermediate School Administrators.

“When you’re the governor and you’re talking about the future of this state, I really believe she’s leaning in with this department, and it is very transformational with this change,” Severson said.

Whitmer has also set a goal of ensuring access to pre-K education for all 4-year-olds by the end of her second term.

Scott Koenigsknecht, superintendent of Clinton County Regional Educational Service Agency, an intermediate school district, said that Whitmer is “extremely committed to all things early childhood,” and investment in early childhood will help improve student outcomes.

Will MiLEAP lead to more efficiency or bureaucracy?

Tom Haas, president emeritus at Grand Valley State University, where he teaches leadership studies, said he sees the new department as a way to create efficiencies. It also is an acknowledgement that education starts with pre-K and that more college graduates is good for the state’s economy, Haas said.

The state’s current system of an elected state board and a superintendent who does not answer to the governor has been criticized for years, including by then-Gov. Rick Snyder’s 21st Century Education Commission, which Haas was on.

The PreK-12 workgroup of Whitmer’s Growing Michigan Together Council, which is focused on expanding the state’s population, recommends that the state align priorities among MDE, the state board, and the governor’s office. The group also recommends a “reconsideration of how the state superintendent is selected.”

Many education experts told Bridge they hope MiLEAP leads to more collaboration and cohesiveness in Lansing on education policy issues — but not to more bureaucracy.

Launch Michigan, for instance, supports a model where the governor, rather than the State Board of Education, appoints the state superintendent.

“As I’ve stepped into my role as Launch president, I have heard from many sources that collaboration with the Michigan Department of Education is not strong right now and there’s a desire for better collaboration with Dr. Rice and the department,” Keesler said, referring to Michael Rice, the state superintendent.

Keesler said collaboration would be stronger if education groups had more opportunity to share input with MDE and had a better understanding of what is happening at the department.

Bob McCann, executive director of the K-12 Alliance of Michigan, which represents 123 school districts in Southeast Michigan, agreed.

“Often, our districts would like proactive communication (with MDE on) ‘how could this work better for you?’”

Rice, in a statement Friday morning, said he expected the work of the Office of Great Start (an early childhood education agency), which will transfer from MDE to MiLEAP, to continue.

“Whether or not we agree on the formation of a new department, we’re all going to continue to serve kids,” Rice said.

Brandy Johnson, president of the Michigan Community College Association, said she believes MiLEAP will help the governor exert more influence on education policy than she currently has.

“I think having someone in her cabinet that she can trust, and certainly that’s true of Michelle, that’s a big difference.”

Sheila Alles, former interim state superintendent, told Bridge she wished Whitmer had gone even further. Currently in Michigan, many education decisions are made at the local level.

Alles said she would like to see a system where local school districts are accountable to their regional intermediate school districts and those districts are accountable to MDE. The state superintendent would report to the governor.

“We don’t have time to wait,” Alles said. “Our children deserve better now.”

Mike Flanagan, state superintendent from 2005 to 2015, told Bridge that he, too, has long thought the state superintendent should report to the governor.

“Until the governor gets full control, I don’t think it’s going to drastically change,” he said of the state’s public schools, which typically test in the bottom half of U.S. states on national tests. “And then I think the public can hold the governor accountable for results. The governor can hold the state superintendent (responsible) for results.”

Higher education leaders see opportunity in MiLEAP

Dan Hurley, CEO of the Michigan Association of State Universities, which represents the state’s 15 public universities, told Bridge he believes the new department will increase awareness of the state’s college aid programs, elevate research about the benefits of getting a college degree, and enhance the way student data is used in making decisions.

Richard is a person who “gets things done,” Hurley said, and she “brings the right vibe to the department in terms of synergy, energy, and momentum.”

Johnson, of the community college association, who previously served in Whitmer’s administration, said she hopes MiLEAP will take a leadership role in expanding dual enrollment programs, which allow students to earn college credits while they are still in high school.

While MDE will continue to handle the core functions of K-12, MiLEAP has the potential to improve wraparound supports for students, Johnson said.

“There’s so much going on around a student,” Johnson said. “To me, when I read the executive order in July, the real common thread is student success.”

Isabel Lohman covers education for Bridge Michigan. You can reach her at ilohman@bridgemi.com.

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