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Culture wars and the state board

A year or so ago, one of my students saw me talking with Kathleen Straus, a longtime member of the state board of education.

Later, he asked me who she was. When I told him, he said he hadn’t known there was such a board and asked me what they did.

Well, my guess is that most adults probably know that there is a state board, though they might find it hard to explain what they do. And frankly, their duties are fairly ambiguous. There are eight members, they serve eight-year terms, and whether it makes sense or not, they are put on the ballot by one of the political parties.

They aren’t paid much, by the way, so nobody runs to make a cushy living. They are there because they care about public education.

Michigan’s Constitution gives them one specific duty – to appoint a superintendent of public instruction.

Beyond that, the state board is charged with “leadership and general supervision over all public education,” except for colleges and universities. The board is also to “serve as the general planning and coordinating body for all public education,” and to advise the Legislature on the “financial requirements” of education in Michigan.

But in practice, the board has little real power to do any of that, beyond their personal powers of persuasion.

The Legislature controls education funding in Michigan, and local school boards and superintendents are often not inclined to want state officials to tell them how to run their affairs.

For many years, most people paid little attention to the state board, but that has begun to change, though not necessarily for the best of reasons. It’s had to do with the culture wars.

First, the board of education was under siege over the so-called “common core standards,” which were designed to make sure all students could compete in the economy of the future.

Then this year, there was a huge outcry over what bathroom facilities transgender students should use.

Board President John Austin took what I thought was a courageous stand. He thought it should be up to the individual student to decide, and said the fear of being bullied was the greatest threat to education.

Austin, a Democrat, is running for re-election this year. Democrats are also running Ismael Ahmed, the founder of the private welfare organization ACCESS, and a former director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

Republicans will pick their candidates at their state convention August 27. Normally, the party whose candidate at the top of the ticket wins pretty much sweeps the education races.

However, this year it could be that conservatives may attempt to make this a referendum on bathroom issues. Ismael Ahmed may also be targeted for another reason; he is a Muslim.

That likely cost him election to the University of Michigan board of trustees a year after September 11. I can’t say who citizens should elect to the state board, since I don’t yet know who all the candidates are. But I do know this: There’s nothing more important than ensuring that all our citizens get the best possible education.

That’s something our state’s future depends on. I hope that will be the only issue anyone considers when they actually vote.

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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