In a Nutshell:
- Michigan is one of a few states that has a state board of education with membership chosen by a statewide vote. Filling two seats on this board every two years adds to Michigan’s already-long ballot.
- For a number of reasons, the State Board of Education has been relegated to the sidelines when it comes to setting the state’s education agenda and policy goals.
- A thorough review of the Board’s roles and responsibilities, composition, member selection method, as well as many other related topics is overdue.
Last week, in this space, we discussed the topic of Michigan’s long ballot. It has long been our contention that Michiganders are asked to vote on too many offices and on too many issues, thus making for a long and complicated ballot. A lengthy ballot, in turn, creates challenges for citizens becoming informed and educated voters on every candidate for office and ballot proposition. This leads to “ballot fatigue” and “voter drop off” as fewer voters weigh in on county, municipal, or judicial races than participating in offices at the top of the ballots.
We raised this topic in the shadow of the November 4 election and based on the thinking that now would be the time to consider ballot reforms, including the long ballot.
One ballot area that the Research Council suggests examining is the statewide election of various education seats, including the State Board of Education and the governing boards of the state’s three flagship universities – Michigan State University, the University of Michigan, and Wayne State University. From a national perspective, using party conventions to nominate candidates for these offices and electing partisans to these boards makes our state very unique.
Modifying how members to these boards are chosen should not be taken lightly, but is worth considering if citizens want to be assured that the most qualified and committed individuals are elected to these positions. Because all four of these bodies are created in the state Constitution, a public vote would be required to change their fundamental governance structure. Eliminating the popular election of these boards could serve the dual purpose of improving education governance generally and make voting less tedious and complicated for citizens by shortening the ballot.
In a previous blog, we shed some light on Michigan’s system of electing members to the three higher education boards. Here, we look at reforms to the composition and selection of State Board of Education members.
First, a bit of history to set the context for possible reforms.
Today, only six states with a state board of education provide that all board members are chosen by popular election (ethier statewide or by district). A statewide vote has been a long-standing tradition in Michigan. Michigan first created a state board of education, with members selected by voters, under the 1850 state Constitution and carried it over, intact, into the 1908 Constitution. It provided for an elected four-member board (including the separately elected superintendent of public instruction) with very limited authority and responsibility.
The 1963 Constitution, on the other hand, expanded the size of the board and its responsibilities, providing it with “general supervision over all public education” and charging it with advising the Michigan Legislature as to the financial requirements of providing a free public education.The framers had high hopes for the newly-reconstituted board. Unfortunately, for those still around today, they would find that many of their expectations have not been realized over the past four decades due to original design flaws, changes in state law and executive branch reorganization, and political polarization.
Despite its reaffirmed constitutional status and the new responsibilities granted to it under the 1963 Constitution, from an education policy perspective, the board has always played second fiddle to the legislature. The board is empowered only to make policy within the limits established by state law. Over the years, the legislature has been hesitant to cede any of its plenary authority to the board.
Further, beyond the limits established by its constitutional framework, the board’s role and responsibilities have been narrowed over the years by executive branch reorganizations and transfers of administrative powers to the board-appointed state superintendent, as well as the Michigan Department of Education (led by the superintendent). The vast majority of these changes occurred during a period from the early 1990s to the early 2000s, led by thenGovernor John Engler.
Partisan politics, combined with growing polarization, have also played a role in limiting the board’s influence over education policy and therefore its effectiveness. Candidates for open seats (two seats are open each general election) are nominated at party conventions and appear on the general election ballot as partisans. Nominations are largely based on name recognition, party loyalty, and the ability of an individual to fundraise or self-fund their own campaign, rather than their qualifications related to public education. Given that these positions appear near the bottom of the ballot, winning candidates usually are from the same political party as winners at the top of the ballot (President, Governor).
The political color of the board at any point in time, vis-a-vis the majority party in the legislature and the political party of the sitting governor, can make it difficult for its input, recommendations, and advice to gain traction in the policy-setting arenas. We have seen this on multiple occasions in recent years, including key policy topics of school funding, high-stakes student testing, or student safety (e.g., bullying, same-sex bathrooms, etc.).
The framers’ aspirations for an influential, independent decision-making body have not been achieved. Today, it is quite rare for the board’s recommendations, advice and/or counsel on education issues to be regularly solicited, accepted, or acted upon by either lawmakers or the governor. On many occasions, it has been relegated to the sidelines when it comes to setting the state’s education agenda and policy goals. John Austin, a member of the board for 16 years including six as president, believes the board, at least in its current form, is no longer effective.
COVID-19 has made everyone connected to public K-12 education rethink many aspects of this basic government service. Students, families, teachers, and others continue to struggle to adjust to the challenges of providing learning opportunities during a worldwide pandemic. This includes challenges related to ensuring access to technology and reliable internet connectivity for ALL of Michigan’s 1.5 million students, addressing the unique learning needs of our most vulnerable children, and meeting the basic nutritional needs of children accustomed to receiving meals at school. State policymakers have tackled some of the disruptions caused by the virus and there is evidence of progress on many fronts. Still, much work remains.
At some point, post-pandemic, state policy discussions will surely have to focus on the many structural changes made to the delivery of K-12 education services. Those discussions should consider whether state and local governance structures need updating as well. The state’s current set-up for its board of education may not be optimal going forward. It certainly hasn’t lived up to the original expectations many had for it. Whether the board should be eliminated or the method for member selection changed will require much more debate. Eliminating the popular election of members would serve as a good first step towards updating our education governance model, as well as shortening the ballot for voters.