The role of state board of ed

The state board of education is the Rodney Dangerfield of state government; it can’t get no (sic) respect.

In fact the lack of respect is so bad, there’s a move afoot to send it to the political graveyard without a proper burial.

The framers of the 1963 Michigan Constitution decided that the voters should pick the SBE and not the governor or anybody else for that matter. It was a noble decision that placed gobs of trust that the citizens would do their due diligence and select the right folks to ride herd on how we teach our kids.

How’d that work out?

To underscore the almost total lack of voter due diligence in this arena, it’s fun during an election year to go to the voters with this offer. The TV reporter dangles a $100 bill in front of the voters and asks them to name the candidates running for the state board of education. Like death and taxes, it’s a sure thing that nobody can name any of them unless one of them is a relative.

Enter the debate Rep. Tim Kelly (R-Saginaw) with a constitutional amendment to abolish the board and let the governor pick the state school superintendent. He argues the division of power over education is shared by the board, the governor and the legislature and Mr. Kelly concludes, “when everybody is in charge, nobody is in charge.”

And a recent governor’s commission on education concurs.

Abolishing the state board is by no means a new idea. Gov. John Engler, if he had been a dictator, would have done it in a flash. Others have talked about it but so far nothing has changed.

The board critics contend the beast is a toothless tiger that has zero power to impose its will on local schools where local control is the Holy Grail. The board and the state school superintendent can recommend, cajole, and lean on schools to do this or that to improve the education output, but at the end of the day, it can’t make it happen.

Current State School Superintendent Brian Whitson has enjoyed some success in this tricky business of trying to impose change on a system that is often mired in anything but. He took over the issue of failing schools in the bottom 5 percent of the education heap. They were on a path to closure when he got everyone together and developed a plan to keep the doors open. He stumbled along the way but journeyed on and found something that might work.

What he did do was delay for three years any school closures and the legislature sort of liked that because nobody wants to run for re-election in the midst of shuttering one of your schools. That’s the kind of ugly stuff that can cost a lawmaker his or her job.

Yet, Mr. Kelly observes the board is “an unnecessary labor of bureaucracy” and without it, the governor would pick the state superintendent who would be accountable to the boss and if there were screw-ups the buck would stop there and not with eight board members nobody knows in the first place.

However if you look at other states, they are all over the lot with no clear trend toward what Mr. Kelly wants. Turns out 18 states let the governor do it, 23 let the school board make the pick and 14 are elected by the voters.

In the Great Lakes region Wisconsin and Indiana let the citizens decide and the governor gets the job in Minnesota and in American Samoa and Puerto Rico among others.

Mr. Kelly was successful in pushing his plan out of his own committee but its fate in the House and Senate is pretty grim. It would take 74 House and 26 Senate votes to put this on the ballot and then the same citizens who don’t have the foggiest notion about any of this, would decide whether to change the constitution.

Even Mr. Kelly concedes, it’s not going to happen but trying to slap a happy face on that analysis he smiles and adds, “it will start the debate.”

Which is code for saying the status quo wins and in the next election reporters can continue to wave that 100 bucks in front of the voters with no fear of having to give it away.