Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Q and A: State Board of Education Vice President Casandra Ulbrich

We are very pleased to bring you a Q and A with State Board of Education Vice President Casandra Ulbrich.  Vice President Ulbrich discusses, among other things, a proposed constitutional amendment to change how the SBE is elected.  We posted on this yesterday. Okemos Parents for Schools, June 2, 2014.
SBE Vice President Casandra Ulbrich

Casandra was elected in 2006 to an eight-year term on the Michigan State Board of Education. She currently chairs the board’s Legislative Committee.  Casandra spent the majority of her career in higher education administration. She currently serves as the Vice President for College Advancement and Community Relations at Macomb Community College. Before joining Macomb Community College in 2011, Casandra was employed at Wayne State University for over ten years, serving in various administrative positions, including Director of Corporate and Foundation Relations. Casandra has been recognized as one of Michigan’s 40 under 40 by Crain’s Detroit Business and received the Service to Schools Award by the Macomb ISD. Casandra is the first in her family to earn a college degree, and holds a Ph.D. in Communication from Wayne State University. She serves on several boards and is an active volunteer K-9 handler with Search and Rescue of Michigan. Casandra answered our questions over email.

Q: What do you think of the proposal to amend Michigan’s constitution so that the State Board of Education is elected from single representative districts instead of every member standing for statewide election?

A: “Religion, morality and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” – Michigan Constitution

The framers of the State Constitution, along with the majority of voters in the state of Michigan, clearly envisioned public education as a necessary function of government. As such, they outlined, in the Constitution, a State Board of Education (SBE) that was stable, removed from the political whims of the day, and consistent in its mission and direction.

They did this by requiring that the board consist of eight members serving eight-year terms, with two members elected statewide every two years. Members are nominated by political party, and run for election on the November ballot. By running statewide, the members must focus on what’s in the best interest of all of Michigan’s children, not just those that are in a particular region.

House Joint Resolution GG would amend the Constitution to require that the SBE members are elected by district, as opposed to statewide. This would certainly alter the overall focus of the board, and may lead to board members who are beholden to their region of the state at the expense of others.

In addition, it’s unclear if every board member will be elected at the same time, or by staggered years. If elected at the same time, this could lead to major swings in education policy from one board to the next, creating an unstable environment for education policy.

Q: The State Board of Education has Democrats and Republicans. How would you say SBE members work with members of the other political party as compared to in Michigan’s legislature?

A: Unlike the State Legislature, the State Board of Education functions under a shared goal: ensuring a quality education for all of Michigan’s children. Therefore, while elected on a partisan ballot, the SBE is generally able to effectively work together and compromise on policy. Purely partisan votes are much more rare with the SBE than they are with the Legislature. In fact, the vast majority of votes in the SBE are bi-partisan.

Q: Why do you think there is a different dynamic on the SBE than in the Legislature?

A: There are a number of foundational elements that allow for this, including:
  • Longer terms – by serving an eight year term, the SBE has the ability to be thoughtful in policy decisions.         
  • Shared goals – each year, members of the State Board sit down with the Department of Education and develop a set of agreed-upon goals and directives for the year.        
  • Stability – every two years, only two members are up for election. Therefore, the SBE is not subject to the kind of major swings in membership that the Legislature endures. ·
  • Statewide election – The State Board is not subject to “gerrymandering.”
Q: What do you think is the motivation to change the way SBE members are elected?

A: My understanding is a desire to see more board members from the Northern part of the state, specifically the Upper Peninsula. However, the current system does not preclude anyone from this region from running for the State Board of Education.

Q: Do you see this as connected to the recent proposal to move supervision of standardized testing in Michigan from the Department of Education to the Treasury?

A: I am not aware of a connection. The State Board of Education has, unanimously, opposed moving assessments from the Dept. of Education to the Dept. of Treasury. Every member of the SBE signed onto the following bi-partisan statement:

The State Board of Education opposes HB 5581 and SB 945.

As stated in Michigan's Constitution, "Leadership and general supervision over all public education, including adult education and instructional programs in state institutions, except as to institutions of higher education granting baccalaureate degrees, is vested in a state board of education. It shall serve as the general planning and coordinating body for all public education, including higher education, and shall advise the legislature as to the financial requirements in connection therewith."

Board members believe that quality career- and college-ready standards, rigorous student assessment, and appropriate school accountability must be thoughtfully integrated and coordinated for successful public education.

Removing responsibility from the Michigan Department of Education for any of these elements would weaken the framework schools need to improve student outcomes for all children, and will undermine efforts to help our highest-risk children succeed in school.

Q: If you could make one or two big changes to education policy in Michigan, what would they be?

A: Over 20 years ago, Michigan voters approved a funding model, Proposal A, which essentially transferred the majority of financial responsibility of our schools to the state, creating a system whereby funding “follows the student.” At the same time, Michigan began experimenting with “school choice,” namely in the form of charter schools, creating one of the least –restrictive environments for Charter Schools in the county. This has led to Michigan outpacing the rest of the country in the number of for-profit run charter schools.

We now know that this funding model, and this structure, are completely incongruent, and have led to record numbers of school districts in financial distress. Adding to that, in the last ten years, Michigan has seen a decline in enrollment of over 135,000 students. At the same time, we have allowed a net gain of approx. 160 new charter schools to open. Next year, we will have about 20 additional charters open, despite another year of declining enrollment. This is a terribly inefficient way to run a school system.

The State of Michigan needs to create a strategy for its school system. We can no longer afford to allow unfettered school growth at the expense of our local schools. At the same time, we need to update our funding model to ensure that we are adequately funding our schools and expecting a high return on our dollar.

Q: A lot of the education policy coming out of our legislature these days based on the premise that Michigan schools are failing, so some kind of big changes are needed. Do you agree with that premise?

A: Public Education needs to be responsive to the ever changing environment. Therefore, there will always be room for improvement. However, as a member of the State Board of Education, I am disappointed in the fact that I often find myself defending the very idea of public education. There are clearly elements within our society who believe that public education, itself, is a failed experiment and should be destroyed. They have redefined the use of tools, such as student assessments, to label students, teachers, schools and districts as “failures.”

These labels then become an opportunity to “reform education.” Each year in Michigan, new “reforms” are introduced and implemented with record speed. However, our results are not improving. In fact, some argue that they are getting worse. Recent reports by Education Trust and the Annie E Casey Foundation have raised alarming results. Perhaps it is time to stop “reforming” and start allowing our educators to get back to teaching.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Constitutional amendment could result in gerrymandered Board of Ed

Last week a measure was introduced in the Michigan Legislature which could send the well-functioning State Board of Education (SBE) into gerrymandered dysfunction. 

The Michigan Constitution currently mandates that members of the SBE stand for statewide election and serve eight-year terms.  However, Joint House Resolution GG, introduced last week, could send a constitutional amendment to the ballot which would instead have SBE members elected from single member districts.

Currently the SBE has a mix of Democrats and Republicans, but generally comes together and agrees on matters both routine and controversial.  The dynamic is different on the SBE than in many other institutions in Lansing.  This no accident.

Both houses of Michigan's Legislature are composed of members representing a single district, and every district having one representative.  The district lines are drawn by whatever party holds a majority every ten years when it's time to redraw the lines.  Democrats and Republicans alike have traditionally used this as an opportunity to draw districts which favor their party, even if the districts split communities.  This is called gerrymandering.

When districts are gerrymandered, most districts will be "safe" for one party or the other and the result of the general election is a forgone conclusion.  The real contest is in the primary of the party which holds the advantage in the district.  To win the primary, candidates tend toward the ideological fringes.  This results in representatives with positions much more extreme than the general electorate of their district.  Additionally, each representative is insulated from criticism from outside his district, as the majority of Michigan citizens cannot vote in his election. This results in a very polarized governing body. 

As currently comprised, the SBE is designed to avoid that.  All eight members stand for statewide election, so each member is accountable to every voter in the state, and the incentive in a primary is to produce a moderate candidate who can win in a competitive general election.  Additionally, only two members stand for election at a time, so the SBE has a built in level of consistency with little turnover.

Joint House Resolution GG would change all of that, subjecting the SBE to gerrymandering and lowering it into the depths of Lansing's political fray. 

The joint resolution amendment process is governed by Article XII, Section 1 of the Michigan Constitution.  The measure will need to pass both houses of the Legislature by a 2/3 majority, and then it will go to the ballot.  Joint House Resolution GG was introduced last week and referred to committee. 

Tomorrow we will publish a Q and A with SBE Vice President Casandra E. Ulbrich concerning Joint House Resolution GG.

Moving testing from Department of Education to Treasury could jeopardize federal funding

We previously posted about a plan circulating in the Legislature to move oversight of student testing form the Department of Education to the Treasury.  Okemos Parents for Schools, May 27, 2014. We noted lawmakers acknowledged the proposal was political payback.  Now a nonprofit citizens group has came out against the proposal.
The nonpartisan, nonprofit Citizens Research Council of Michigan cites the state's experience in 2003 with Treasury oversight of the MEAP as an example of the problems that come with taking control of testing away from the Michigan Department of Education.
"While this proposed solution may serve as an expeditious policy response and meet other priorities, it most likely would come at a cost of less efficiency and accountability in carrying out state education functions," CRC director of state affairs Craig Thiel wrote on the group's website. [MLive.com, May 24, 2014.]
In 2003 the CRC recommended returning control of the MEAP to the Department of Education from the Treasury after Governor Engler moved oversight of the test and the Treasury's tenure with the test was marked with delay after delay in scoring and reporting. 

Additionally, the CRC notes that Michigan currently has a waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind law which includes a mandate to give a standardized test aligned with the Common Core curriculum.  The new Smarter Balanced Assessment the Department of Education was set to use next year would have complied with that mandate.  If the treasury gives a new version of the MEAP, as proponents of the switch favor, Michigan may not be in compliance with its waiver.  Failure to comply with the waiver could have devastating effects on federal funding.

Failure to comply with the waiver could result in all the state's schools being deemed "failing" and forced to spend 20 percent of their federal funds on tutoring and mandatory school choice.
Michigan's schools receive between $800 million and $1 billion in federal Title I funds each year, meaning at least $160 million in funds could be diverted to choice and tutoring if the waiver is revoked. [Id.]