News Story

School Choice and More at Risk in High-Stakes Board of Education Race

Next board will choose new state superintendent

It might be easy to overlook the State Board of Education race on the Nov. 4 statewide election ballot. Its outcome, however, could profoundly impact Michigan’s education policies on issues ranging from charter public schools to teacher and school district performance evaluations.

Four candidates are vying for two seats on the State Board of Education; they are Republican-nominated Maria Carl and Jonathan Williams and Democrat-nominated Pamela Pugh Smith and Casandra Ulbrich. Democrats currently control the board with a 6-2 majority. If both Carl and Williams were to be elected it would change that to a 4-4 balance; any other result will leave the Democrats in charge.

State Board of Education races are low-funded, bottom of the ticket contests in which results usually hinge on major political party turnout. That dynamic isn’t expected to change this year but the stakes are higher than usual.

Long-serving State Superintendent of Public Instruction Mike Flanagan is planning to leave office in mid-2015. When he leaves, the State Board of Education will pick his successor. If the Democrats maintain control of the board, they’ll name the next Superintendent; if the board is divided 4-4 between Republicans and Democrats, the Republican members would have more of a say in who gets the job.

According to Audrey Spalding, education policy director with Mackinac Center for Public Policy, Flanagan hasn’t always agreed with the most ardent charter school supporters and other education reform advocates, but the next superintendent could be far less sympathetic to such policy positions.

“If the board chooses a candidate opposed to school choice, that could have a chilling effect,” Spalding told Capitol Confidential. “Superintendent Flanagan has already threatened to stop 11 charter public school authorizers from offering new schools, and a superintendent hostile to choice could try to do more.

“The wrong superintendent could also limit school district flexibility,” Spalding added. “Flanagan has tried to make sure districts have more flexibility to offer more online courses. He has worked to waive some administrative rules in order to encourage innovation, and a superintendent with different priorities might not.”

Smith and Ulbrich, the Democrat-nominated board of education candidates, are both in favor of the House Democrats’ call to place a moratorium on any new charter schools. Ulbrich, the one incumbent board member in the race, spoke at the Sept. 18 press conference announcing House Bill 5852 that would impose the moratorium. In an editorial published by the Detroit Free Press, Ulbrich argued for a moratorium largely on the basis that alternative education choices – such as charter schools and cyber schools – take students away from conventional schools.

Ulbrich did not mention that nearly as many students choose to attend a different conventional school district than the one to which they are assigned as students who choose to attend a charter public school.

Smith, the other Democrat-nominated candidate, is also calling for a moratorium on new charter schools and has said that would be an issue in selecting Flanagan’s replacement. In addition she has called for the dismantling of the Education Achievement Authority (EAA), an office in the Department of Education tasked with reforming schools that are among the 5 percent worst in the state.

Smith did not respond to a phone call offering her the opportunity to comment. However, she was interviewed for the Oct. 13 edition of the MIRS News podcast. The interview is in the second portion of the podcast.

Meanwhile, Republican-nominated candidate Williams is opposed to a moratorium on charter schools.

“Let's give some credit to the authorizers and parents to discern whether or not more choice in education is warranted where ever it is being proposed,” Williams told Capitol Confidential. “Parents and children deserve to have choices regarding their public education. And, by passing a moratorium on all new charters, these Democrat legislators would effectively end that choice and the promise charter schools afford our kids.

"The voters have a choice,” Williams continued. “A balanced board will only be brought in if a majority of conservative-minded voters get to the polls and complete their ballot from beginning to end. There has been some talk that the 6-2 Democrat controlled board might hurry the process of replacing our current superintendent during the lame-duck period if the election in November evens the board at 4-4. Undermining the will of the voters would be a disastrous way to start the upcoming session. It does, however, underscore the importance of choosing our next state superintendent, following Mr. Flanagan's planned departure. The next board, whatever the makeup, needs to choose an extremely qualified leader and manager to fill the capable shoes of our outgoing ‘Super.’”

Likewise, the other GOP nominated board of education candidate, Maria Carl, opposes a moratorium on new charter schools.

“In many ways I think what it comes down to is that traditional schools don’t want competition,” Carl said. “But competition is good; competition spurs creativity and excellence. There are already controls in place for charter schools. Authorizers make sure charters perform, and if they aren’t performing after two years they close. When a charter school closes it creates a vacancy for the possibility of a new one. I am not in favor of a moratorium that would prevent new ones from being started.

“This year’s State Board of Education is very important,” Carl continued. “I’m looking forward to having a 4-4 split on the board and working with both the current superintendent and – assuming he goes through with his plans to leave – helping to choose his successor.”

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.