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For real change, abolish State Board of Education

We are sympathetic with efforts in the Legislature to revamp the State Board of Education, one of the most ineffective elected bodies in Michigan. But rather than tinker with where board members come from, lawmakers should think bolder and consider doing away with it altogether.

The state constitution gives the eight-member State Board general oversight of education, and its main duty is choosing the superintendent who runs the Michigan Department of Education. As it stands now, political parties nominate candidates for the board and they go before voters in a statewide election.

The majority of members have long been Democrats, as unions fund the campaigns of candidates they believe will be sympathetic to their priorities. And many members come from urban, populated areas. Seven of the eight current members are from southeast Michigan.

Some lawmakers want to change that, and encourage more geographic diversity on the board. The Senate Education and Career Readiness Committee this month approved a bill to do this by splitting the state into eight regions, regardless of the population.

Sen. Lana Theis, R-Brighton, chair of the committee, said more attention should be given to rural parts of the state and those school districts.

While it’s a worthwhile debate to have, the proposed solution is convoluted and could serve to disenfranchise some of the most populated parts of the state.

Sen. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, sponsored the bill. He’s introduced similar measures in the past, as he believes his Upper Peninsula region is ignored on the board.

The more glaring problem with the State Board of Education is rooted in how education is governed in Michigan. This state is one of just six that doesn’t allow the governor to choose board members or the state superintendent. This has led to a disjointed vision for schools in the state, and has prevented Michigan from moving forward with more innovative reforms that states like Florida have employed.

Lawmakers should tackle this broader challenge by putting a measure on the ballot. Since education governance is outlined in the constitution, it would have to go before voters.

The idea of altering how the State Board is elected — and even abolishing it altogether — gained traction a few years ago when former Gov. Rick Snyder created the 21st Century Education Commission. In 2017, the commission, composed of representatives from government, business and community organizations, released its recommendations. It highlighted the problematic nature of school governance, stating the governor, Legislature, MDE and State Board all direct state policy to “varying degrees.”

Like most reports, that one got shelved.

The problems with the State Board of Education are far deeper than where members come from, and lawmakers should do the hard work of pushing for meaningful change.

— Detroit News

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