The upcoming State of the State address will be Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s first opportunity as governor to share her plans for improving Michigan schools.

That Feb. 12 speech will come during what is arguably one of the most pivotal moments for education in the state. In addition to a new governor, this year brings new leadership to the legislative committees that handle K-12 education issues, new leaders of both the state House and Senate, and by the middle of this year a new state school superintendent.

Michigan schools have been struggling for years and showing little academic improvements. Last year, 44 percent of students in grades 3-8 were proficient in English language arts and 37.4 percent in math, according to state standardized exam scores. On the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a rigorous national exam, performance has been sliding, while other states have surpassed Michigan. Meanwhile a report last week shows Michigan ranks dead last among states for total revenue growth for schools.

All of this means Whitmer has an opening to push for significant change when it comes to fixing Michigan schools. Here’s who she might turn to for advice.

Emily Laidlaw

Policy director, education advisor

PHOTO: LinkedIn
Emily Laidlaw is the policy director for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. In that role, she advises the governor on education issues.

Laidlaw was previously an associate at the Lansing-based lobbying firm Karoub Associates. Prior to that, she was director of government relations at the Michigan Association of Intermediate School Administrators, which has advocated for issues including the restoration of funding for intermediate school districts, or agencies that provide a range of services to local school districts within their boundaries. When Whitmer first named Laidlaw to her position, she got a strong endorsement from the Michigan Association of Superintendents & Administrators, with officials tweeting a month ago that Laidlaw “has a deep understanding of Michigan education policy. We look forward to working with her!”

Two more people may have some influence with Whitmer. They are:

Mark Burton

Chief strategist

Mark Burton is the chief strategist for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. In a prior role, he was executive director of the Tri-County Alliance for Public Education

Burton was Whitmer’s chief of staff when she was in the state Senate. After that, he became executive director of the Tri-County Alliance for Public Education, an organization that represents the interests of school districts in Macomb, Oakland, and Wayne counties. The organization has advocated against policies its leaders believe are damaging to public schools. Most recently, in an attempt to secure adequate funding for schools, Tri-County pushed lawmakers to address reports calling for an overhaul of the school funding system.

Josh Neyhart

Title unknown

Neyhart was introduced as Whitmer’s representative during the January meeting of the State Board of Education. He was a policy analyst for Whitmer’s transition team and was the events manager for her campaign. Prior to joining the Whitmer campaign, Neyhart worked for United Airlines as an airport operations zone control supervisor, according to his LinkedIn profile.

The Legislature

Change is also happening in the Michigan Legislature, where there are new leaders of the House Education Committee and the Senate Education and Career Readiness Committee.

House Education Committee

Pamela Hornberger, chair

Republican representative from Chesterfield Township.

PHOTO: Michigan House Republicans
Michigan Rep. Pamela Hornberger heads up the House Education Committee

Hornberger’s legislative bio says she taught art for 23 years in the East China School District in St. Clair County. She was elected to the House in 2016. Prior to that, she was a school board member in the L’Anse Creuse Public Schools district.

The other Republicans members of the committee are Brad Paquette, Niles; Kathy Crawford, Novi; Hank Vaupel, Handy Township; John Reilly, Oakland Township; Matt Hall, Emmett Township; Gregory Markkanen, Hancock; Jack O’Malley, Lake Ann; and Rodney Wakeman, Saginaw Township. Democrats on the committee are Darrin Camilleri, Brownstown Township; William Sowerby, Clinton Township; Brenda Carter, Pontiac; Tyrone Carter, Detroit; Matt Koleszar, Plymouth; and Lori Stone, Warren. Committee members whose bios indicate they are current or former teachers are Paquette, Markkanen, Camilleri, Koleszar, and Stone.

Senate Education and Career Readiness Committee

Lana Theis, chair

Republican senator from Brighton

PHOTO: Michigan Senate GOP
Michigan Senator Lana Theis heads up the Senate Education and Career Readiness committee

Theis served in the Michigan House for four years before being elected in November to the state Senate. She was previously Brighton Township Treasurer.

Other members of the committee are Republicans Ken Horn, Frankenmuth; Jon Bumstead, Newaygo; Jim Runestad, White Lake; and Kevin Daley, Lum, and Democrats Dayna Polehanki, Livonia; and Erika Geiss, Taylor.

Committee members whose bios show an education connection: Polehanki spent nearly 19 years as a classroom teacher prior to her election. Horn has been a substitute teacher. Runestad has a degree in education. Geiss was an adjunct faculty member at Wayne County Community College.

Michigan Department of Education

The State Board of Education, which oversees the Michigan education department, is accepting applications for the state superintendent of schools position. They’re seeking a replacement for the late Brian Whiston, who died in May.

Though Whitmer has no direct control over the State Board or the education department, it will be crucial for her office and the department to develop a working relationship in order for any plan to improve schools to be implemented effectively.

Interim Superintendent Sheila Alles, previously the chief deputy state superintendent, is overseeing the department until a permanent replacement is named.