It’s no secret that school closures are on the ballot in Michigan this November, with candidates for the state’s highest office taking different positions of that hot-button issue. But the gubernatorial race isn’t the only one on the ballot with sweeping implications for the state’s schools.
The race for the Michigan Board of Education will appear at the bottom of the ballot, but the winners stand to make a major impact on the lives of thousands of students. They will help shape state policy on issues like school closures, social studies standards, and the level of reading skill below which students will have to repeat the third grade.
The board was added to Michigan’s constitution when the state’s founding document was rewritten in 1963. It was designed to keep day-to-day politics out of the staid world of education policy, with each member of the eight-person panel insulated from electoral challenges by a lengthy eight-year term.
Much of its power lies in the single task of hiring a state superintendent, who will likely play a major role in deciding whether to close low-performing schools, not to mention in setting the standards for attendance and academic performance that could be used to close them.
That position is currently vacant, and the education department has said it won’t be filled until next year. That means whoever is elected to fill the board’s two open seats will play a crucial role in picking Michigan’s top education official.
The selection of the superintendent “is the single most important decision for the next year,” said Judy Pritchett, a Democrat and former chief academic officer at the Macomb County Intermediate School District who is among the 11 candidates running for a seat on the board.
Controversy over school closings exploded last year, when Gov. Rick Snyder used an executive order to assume control of the office responsible for closing schools from the state superintendent and ordered the office to close 38 low-performing schools, most of them in Detroit. The move prompted a public outcry, and Detroit’s main district sued to stop the closures. Snyder backed away from the plan, eventually handing the power to close schools back to Brian Whiston, then the state superintendent, who took the threat of closures off the table at least temporarily.
But Whiston’s death in May reopened the issue, leaving the future of Michigan’s lowest-performing schools in the hands of the person selected to replace him.
Snyder’s short-lived takeover of an office previously overseen by the board was just the latest sign that the board’s power has waned in recent years. For most of its history, the board’s recommendations on the state budget and learning standards were heeded by the legislature, says John Austin, a former board president who lost a re-election bid in 2016.
In recent years, however, politicians have become more willing to wade into education issues, and the legislature has increasingly ignored the board’s advice, making clear the limits of its power, Austin said.
The board “has few direct controls over policy,” said Austin. “It’s mainly policy recommendations and exhortations.”
The board’s scope is still too broad for some. The new state superintendent — and by extension the board — are responsible for technical decisions about state policy that will have enormous implications for students across the state. For instance, the superintendent would have the power to decide what it means for a third-grader to read on grade level, which will determine the number of third-graders held back under Michigan’s “read-or-flunk” law when it goes into effect in the 2019-2020 school year. The law, which Democrats have pledged to alter if they gain power in November, requires that third-graders be held back if they can’t read on grade level.
The state superintendent is also responsible for creating measures of student growth and chronic absenteeism, which would likely factor into a statewide A-F grading system for schools if the legislature succeeds in creating one.
What’s more, the board itself is tasked with approving state learning standards, giving them the final say in an ongoing controversy over an attempt by conservative lawmakers to remove references to gay rights, Roe v. Wade, and climate change from state social studies standards. The standards serve as a guide to local districts when they adopt new curriculum.
An education commission assembled by Snyder proposed that members of the board be appointed by the governor. Lawmakers followed up on the proposal, making attempts in recent years to eliminate the board and allow the governor to directly appoint the state superintendent, but those proposals have failed to win the votes they’d need to amend the constitution.
Speaking Wednesday night before a few dozen education officials in Lansing during a candidate forum, live-streamed online, the four major-party candidates insisted that they would honor the board’s history of remaining above the political fray. (Watch video of the forum here).
Tami Carlone, an accountant and Republican education advocate who wrote a bill that would have forbidden Michigan schools from using the learning standards known as the Common Core, said: “politics is a huge part of the problem in education.”
Yet the candidates laid out starkly different visions for the future of Michigan’s schools.
Richard Zeile, a one-term Republican incumbent from Detroit who has spent his career running private Christian schools, said he has pushed to shutter struggling schools.
“I felt that most of them should have been closed,” he said.
Carlone, whose website promises to “hold people accountable for the failures, or our schools will never be excellent.”
By contrast, Pritchett and Tiffany Tilley, who directs the Southfield Community Anti-Drug Coalition, said they oppose school closures.
All four candidates insisted that experience is the main quality they are looking for in a potential superintendent, but Carlone made clear that she would also look for “someone who would push the goals in my platform.”
As the Nov. 6 election approaches, the candidates are posting their platforms online and attending forums where they explain their views. But they understand that because few voters know their names, the race will likely be determined at the top of the ticket. The benefits of a strong election for either party will likely trickle down to the members of that party in the school board race.