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Education suffers in Michigan because no one is accountable

Jack Lessenberry

There’s general agreement that education in Michigan is an unholy mess that is getting worse. Test scores confirm it is failing hundreds of thousands of students, which has huge implications for our future and that of our state.

We are spending billions on a system that doesn’t work, and narrowly based ideological remedies aren’t helping.

When I look at a system that is failing to teach far too many Tommys and Tamikas to read, and which is making higher education unaffordable for those who can, what oddly comes to mind is what a young John Kerry said about Vietnam: 

"How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"

In this case: How we can keep refusing to fix a system to which we are sacrificing generations of children?

I’ve been writing about various education issues for years, but last weekend, I read a piece in DomeMagazine.com that really zeroes in on the heart of the matter.

The author, Ken Winter, who had a long and distinguished career as editor and publisher of the Petoskey News-Review, now teaches political science and journalism at two universities.

His article, Why Johnny and Sally Can’t Read and Write, says nobody should be surprised our kids are failing:

... when one takes a look of who’s in charge of our public education—no one. We have the State Board of Education, Michigan Legislature and Governor who [are] involved in the education fray with no one really taking leadership or being accountable to the public.

That’s not because we have weak leaders. That’s because of an immense flaw in the current Michigan Constitution.

It requires the Legislature to "maintain and support a system of free public elementary and secondary schools" open to any child in Michigan.

Our Constitution goes on to say that, “leadership and general supervision over all public education ... [other than universities offering four-year degrees] … is vested in a state board of education.”  

It says the board, elected by the voters of the entire state, “shall serve as the general planning and coordinating body for all public education, including higher education and shall advise the legislature as to the financial requirements in connection therewith.”

That sounds good in theory, but in practice, it has been a politicized nightmare ...

That sounds good in theory, but in practice, it has been a politicized nightmare, as Winter points out.

The board has no power to compel the Legislature to do anything.

The board also is charged by the Constitution with appointing a state superintendent of schools, currently Brian Whiston, who is "responsible for the execution of [the board’s] policies."

That’s nice -- except that he doesn’t have real power to do much of anything either, except through whatever powers of persuasion he can muster.    

Currently, the Legislature is heavily Republican. Three-quarters of the members of the state school board are Democrats.  They are politically and ideologically at odds.

Last year, the lawmakers threatened to abolish the state department of education and withhold funds over a feud over what standardized test to use.

So we have a situation where everyone is “responsible,” but no one has the power to truly take charge. What we need is a Constitutional amendment establishing a Department of Education with clout and someone with the courage to use it. 

Otherwise, we’re doomed to failure, otherwise known as more of the same.

You can follow the discussion Facebook here.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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