School Choice an Issue in Michigan Board of Education Elections

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The four candidates running for open positions on the state Board of Education in Michigan this year all agree that change is needed to improve upon student achievement, they just disagree on how best to go about it.

While Republican candidates Jonathan Tade Williams and Maria Carl feel more local control is needed over education policy and curriculum, Democratic candidates Pamela Pugh Smith and Casandra Ulbrich believe the state should be investing more money.

This year’s election for the available eight-year positions is focused on issues such as the adoption of Common Core standards, school funding, and expansion of the early childhood program.

The board will also be responsible for finding a replacement for state school superintendent Mike Flanigan, who is retiring this July.

This could cause issues depending on who wins the election.  There are currently 6 Democrats on the board and 2 Republicans.  If Democrats are chosen in this election, they will continue their control and choose the new superintendent.  If not, the Republicans could have more influence.

“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.”

The Democratic candidates are both in favor of placing a limit on the number of charter schools that can be opened in the state.  Ulbrich stated in an earlier editorial that school choice takes students away from the traditional public school system.

However, Ulbrich did not discuss that the number of students who voluntarily opt to attend a different public school from the one they are assigned to is about the same as those who choose to attend charter schools.

The board had approved a list of seven top priorities this past June, which includes closing the achievement gap in reading and math, increasing enrollment in high-quality early education programs, and increasing the number of children who are able to read at grade level by the third grade.

While Ulbrich and Smith are focused on the state increasing their funding efforts, Carl and Williams would like to see fewer state and federal mandates, a move they believe would allow local districts the capability to improve student achievements.

“It (federal control) lacks parental involvement, student individuality, teacher creativity and local control of education,” said Carl, who is board president of the Walton Charter Academy in Pontiac. “In subject matter, it lacks the foundational qualities of the teaching of character education, American history, free enterprise/American exceptionalism, classical literature, as well as art and music (that stimulate learning) as required by the Michigan Constitution.”