Email sent only to Democrats urges them to 'remain active and vigilant' against education reform plans
The president of the Michigan State Board of Education authored an email that was sent by the Michigan Democratic Party to its members lambasting state Republicans and urging Democrats to show up at public education forums across the state to make sure they “help ensure a full public debate" about education reform.
John Austin, president of the state board of education, sent the email Feb. 11. The email has links to the Michigan Democratic Party Facebook page.
The email read:
...Last year ended with a very destructive lame duck session marked by Lansing Republicans sticking a pencil in the eye of hard-working teachers, nurses, and fellow union members with so-called 'right-to-work' legislation. However, with your help, we managed to fight off a damaging right-wing education agenda — for now.
During lame duck, Tea Party Republicans had planned to move House Bill 5923, authored by voucher proponent Richard McLellan, which would have created a 'Wild West' of new school creation. The bill proposed unlimited online, charters, and for-profit schools with no quality control, sapping resources and likely destroying existing schools. Bills for an Education Achievement Authority (EAA) to turn around the worst-performing schools in the state were also loaded up with enablers of this new education marketplace. A proposal to finance this new school market with a voucher-like program where the foundation grant follows any and all student choices was floated by McLellan’s Oxford Foundation and was likely to be a major part of Gov. Rick Snyder's State of the State and budget message.
Austin, who is an elected Democrat, said the email was sent out by the Michigan Democratic Party as an update for other Democrats.
"I work with Republicans all the time and the governor with same message: this is right, this is wrong," Austin wrote in an email responding to questions as to why he sent the email to Democrats only. "Let's work together and find common ground on what's right. Public forums will be thoughtful, open to all, to discuss current issues."
A state Democratic Party spokeswoman confirmed that the party forwarded the email.
"We sent an email to our statewide list at the request of one of our Democratic elected officials," said Democratic Party Spokeswoman Kirstin Alvanitakis, in an email. "The email provides details about a series of public events on a critical policy issue. We view it as our responsibility to keep our supporters informed and engaged."
Michael Van Beek, education policy director at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, said the email highlights that the State Board of Education is not a neutral authority.
"It's part of Lansing partisan politics," Van Beek said. "The decisions and recommendations made by the State Board of Education need to be taken in that political context. Even though it has some statewide authority over all of the districts, it operates in a partisan way."
Dave Agema, a Republican National Committeeman who served in the legislature as a state representative, said Austin showed he was partisan in the debate over education by emailing just the Democrats.
"Education is not a partisan issue," Agema said. "Both parties should be interested in doing what is right. The Republicans want quality education the same as the Democrats do. The question is, 'What's the best way to proceed?' "
The state board of education's authority comes from the state constitution. It provides leadership and general supervision of public education, except for institutions that provide baccalaureate degrees. The board controls and directs how education money is spent.
Austin criticizes some of the proposed bills as creating a "voucher-like" system. In addition to being on the State Board of Education, Austin is a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a center-left think tank that has produced a wide-range of research supporting school choice, including vouchers. Brookings has done multiple studies about voucher programs, charter schools and school choice and generally found them to have a positive effect on educational outcomes.