Nick Krieger (@nckrieger):
It is beyond disturbing that many of our leaders turn to groups like Education Trust-Midwest when they need a seemingly authoritative quote or “statistic” about the state of K-12 education in Michigan. Contrary to the feel-good claims made on its website, Education Trust-Midwest is not an “education-policy . . . organization focused first and foremost on doing what is right for Michigan children.” In truth, it is a results-oriented entity funded with private dollars that was created to push a specific agenda in the false name of “reform”—namely, an agenda of more standardized testing, evaluating students at younger and younger ages, implementing statewide common curricular standards, and shifting the blame for systemic societal problems to teachers and education professionals.
Does Michigan really need standardized testing for children as early as kindergarten? Do standardized tests actually improve literacy rates? And what, exactly, are teachers supposed to do differently when their pupils come from low-income homes where education is not a priority? These are just a few of the numerous questions that come to mind when I peruse the websites of organizations like Education Trust-Midwest.
Some of the foremost education-policy experts in the country are based right here in Michigan—at Michigan State University, Eastern Michigan University, and Wayne State University. Why weren’t they given top billing at the Mackinac Policy Conference last week?
Our state’s political and business leaders assert that public education is one of their first priorities. But their actions belie this claim. The saddest part? Michigan’s education experts actually know how to make schools work, including the most cash-strapped schools in underprivileged areas. They have the experience. They have the knowledge. However, they are rarely included in the conversation because they are not in positions of influence and authority.
Instead, special interests and businessmen increasingly make our state’s education-policy decisions. Does this make sense to you? Rather than consulting the experts who can make positive change happen, the Governor, Legislature, and Chamber of Commerce insist on listening to well-funded, agenda-driven advocates of Common Core and mandated testing. Why? I don't know for sure. After all, any reasonably intelligent person can tell you that sweeping required curricula and standardized testing are at odds with the traditional, conservative ideals of small government and local control. But someone is probably getting rich.
Consider another question: Why has education policy in Michigan become so political in recent years? For example, Senate Bill 103, introduced by State Senator Phil Pavlov (R-Saint Clair), calls for increased evaluation and assessment of classroom teachers and prescribes numerous standards for developing and implementing teacher-evaluation tools. I am certainly not an education-policy expert, and I leave it to someone more proficient in the field to address the bill’s particular strengths and weaknesses. But shouldn’t matters like this be left to the teaching and policy experts in the Department of Education rather than the Legislature? I can almost guarantee that the legislation was written by politicians rather than education professionals.
Senate Bill 103, as amended, was passed by the Michigan Senate (22 yeas-15 nays-1 absent) on May 20. It is now pending before the Michigan House education committee. Who’s backing the bill? Education Trust-Midwest, among others. Indeed, the group’s website highlights the bill under the tab “Policy Priorities.”
The drafters of the Michigan Constitution of 1963—and even more importantly the People of the State of Michigan who adopted it—intended for school policy to be made by education experts. The delegates to the Michigan Constitutional Convention of 1961-1962 specifically designed a system in which policy decisions concerning curriculum, teaching, and school administration would be left to the State Board of Education—an independently elected body existing outside the control of the Governor or the Legislature. A great deal of debate at the Constitutional Convention centered on whether the Governor should have a voting seat on the State Board of Education, whether the board members and Superintendent of Public Instruction should be appointed by the Governor, and whether the Legislature should retain any significant authority in the area of regulating education. Each of these questions was answered in the negative. A majority of the delegates—both Republican and Democratic—ultimately decided that the State Board of Education should be elected as an independent body within the framework of state government, should have the sole ability to hire and fire the Superintendent of Public Instruction (who would not be accountable to the Governor), and should be the exclusive, final policymaking body for Michigan’s schools. The delegates favored this structure because, unlike the Legislature, the State Board of Education would be advised by independent, professional staff members with expertise in the areas of teaching and education policy.
As I have written previously, Article 8 of the Michigan Constitution gives the exclusive power to oversee, supervise, and manage public schools to the State Board of Education and its staff, including the Superintendent of Public Instruction. In their Address to the People, the drafters of the Michigan Constitution explained that although the Legislature would be charged with setting up and financing Michigan’s school districts, the State Board of Education would serve as the “policy-making body” for Michigan’s schools. The Michigan Supreme Court has reaffirmed this concept, ruling that the State Board of Education has the exclusive power “to supervise the system of free public schools set up by the legislature . . . , to determine the curricula and, in general, to exercise leadership and supervision over the public school system.”
In short, the State Board of Education—and not the Legislature—has the exclusive constitutional authority to implement a program of teacher assessment and evaluation. As Justice Boyle observed in 1997, “Inasmuch as the constitution vests leadership and general supervisory authority over all public education in the State Board of Education alone, the Legislature lacks the power to diminish state board authority by statute.” Senate Bill 103, if adopted by the Michigan House and signed by the Governor, would legislatively diminish the State Board of Education’s constitutional authority over public schools. It is therefore violative of Article 8, section 3 of the Michigan Constitution.
The People of the State of Michigan intended for the State Board of Education and its staff to apply their educational expertise to solve the problems facing Michigan’s schools. By promoting partisan legislation like Senate Bill 103, organizations like Education Trust-Midwest would further dismantle Michigan’s proven method of data-driven policymaking, replace it with an even-more-haphazard structure wherein individual legislators offer up politicized school “reforms” that suit their special-interest constituencies, and thereby turn the constitutionally empowered State Board of Education into a mere vestigial appendage of state government. The patchwork, hyperpolitical education “reform” statutes on the books in Michigan are already a problem. We surely do not need any more of them.
In the end, it is telling that Education Trust-Midwest and other purportedly “public-interest” organizations have chosen to pursue partisan, legislative solutions to Michigan’s education challenges. The private foundations that fund these groups often seem more interested in conducting social-engineering experiments than providing a sound education for all Michigan children. While many of their so-called “reforms” would undoubtedly gain little traction among the professionals at the Department of Education, their ideas are much more favorably received in the Legislature—a body made up of 148 elected politicians in the business of making deals.
It is time for the State Board of Education to stand up, assert its rightful authority, and take back the powers that the Legislature has usurped. It is also time for us, as citizens, to demand that professional educators, administrators, curriculum specialists, and early-childhood experts once again take control of school policy in Michigan.