It’s a little-known elected body that’s easy to overlook when you’re trying to navigate a lengthy ballot. But the two people elected to eight-year terms on the State Board of Education will have a hand in making a decision that could shape education in Michigan for years to come.
That decision? The hiring of a new state superintendent to lead the Michigan Department of Education. That person will become Michigan’s top education leader at a time when schools across the state, as one candidate put it, “are in crisis.”
It’s one of the biggest issues in the race for two seats on the board, which meets monthly in Lansing and is responsible for setting education policy in the state.
The superintendent’s position has been open since May, when Brian Whiston, who had been state superintendent since 2015, died after a battle with cancer. Sheila Alles, who had been chief deputy superintendent, has been serving in an interim role since May.
Incumbent Richard Zeile, a Republican from Dearborn, is taking on three challengers in the race: Democrats Judy Pritchett of Washington Township and Tiffany Tilley of Southfield, and Republican Tami Carlone of Novi. Currently, the board is split evenly between Democrats and Republicans.
Seven other candidates represent minor parties. They are: Scotty Boman and John Tatar, Libertarian Party; Karen Adams and Douglas Levesque, U.S. Taxpayers Party; Sherry Wells, Green Party; Mary Anne Hering and Logan Smith, Working Class Party.
The two candidates with the most votes get the seats, and Zeile is the only incumbent in the race. Here’s what the major-party candidates had to say about the search for a new superintendent and other key issues:
Education: Bachelor’s degree in business administration/accounting from the University of Michigan
Work: Certified public accountant, business owner and process improvement expert
Carlone said the new superintendent needs to be “somebody who puts the kids first, wants to educate them and knows how to improve things that aren’t going well.” That doesn’t mean the leader needs to have been in education “forever,” she said.
What’s more important is someone with a proven track record who understands what’s working, what needs to change and how to make that happen.
“Things are pretty bad in Michigan right now. The goal needs to be to do way better by our children and improve our results.”
Other issues: She said that in order to improve academic achievement, Michigan must “get back to using proven … educational methods.” She said the state must address its “embarrassing” and “unacceptable” rating as the worst state in the nation for special education programs, as noted in an annual report from the U.S. Department of Education. And, she said, educators need to shed the “teach to the test” mentality permeating schools.
“If you’re focusing on testing … you’re killing innovation and creativity.”
Education: Doctorate degree in educational leadership, Oakland University. Bachelor’s, master’s and education specialist degrees from OU. Associate degree from Lorain Community College in Ohio
Work: Retired educator. Prior to retirement, she was the chief academic officer for the Macomb Intermediate School District
Pritchett said she hopes that whoever is hired as the new superintendent can keep the momentum started under Whiston, who began an effort to make Michigan a Top 10 state academically in 10 years.
“One of the primary things I’m looking for is someone with some sort of experience in leadership in public schools. That is absolutely necessary,” Pritchett said. That person needs to understand instruction, support teachers and other educators and understand what has to happen in the classroom for improvement to happen, she said.
And, like Whiston, Pritchett said the new superintendent should be someone who can work with people from different viewpoints and political parties.
“It doesn’t matter whether there’s a blue wave … or whatever kind of wave there’s going to be in November. We’ve got to move forward with public education, and it has to be somebody who can maneuver through that.”
Other issues: She said the state must provide teachers with the support they need, and invest more in helping struggling schools. Equity is also a key issue, Pritchett said. She said that no matter where students live, or their economic background, they should have the same opportunities.
“When they walk through the door, I’m passionate about the fact that public education is the great equalizer. We have to find out what each child’s needs are and provide them with those opportunities. That’s what public education is supposed to be about.
“Kids deserve equitable opportunities.”
Education: Bachelor’s degree in corporate communications, University of Michigan. Bachelor’s degree, organizational leadership and communications, Rochester College. Working on a master’s degree in international relations-international development, Norwich College
Work: Director of the Southfield Community Anti-Drug Coalition
Tilley wants the next superintendent to be someone with experience and a proven track record.
“I would expect they would be somebody that can not only do the job, as far as the hard day-to-day operations, but also take the time to know the different communities in Michigan,” Tilley said.
“It has to be somebody that really cares about our youth and making a change and difference,” she said.
Part of the track record she’s looking for in a superintendent is experience turning around districts.
“We are in a state of crisis in Michigan when it comes to education. And they are all hurting. I want to see that person have a track record in different environments.”
Other issues: Tilley said there need to be changes to the way the state currently funds schools to ensure students are being funded equitably. She wants to strengthen anti-bullying policies to ensure that students “feel safe when they go to school.” And she wants to see more investments made in ensuring students are literate. A current law requiring many students to be held back if they’re not at grade level in reading by the end of third grade — which kicks in after this school year — is not the answer, she said.
“We can’t punish our children. It should not be up to the state,” she said.
Education: Doctorate degree in ministry from the Detroit Ecumenical Theological Seminary. Specialist in educational administration degree from Wayne State University. Master of Divinity from Concordia Theological Seminary. Master of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School, Master of Arts in education from University of Michigan. Bachelor’s degree in history and humanities from Valparaiso University
Work: Lutheran minister
Zeile, who is cochair of the board, said he’s looking for a new superintendent “who has many of the gifts Whiston” had. “Someone who is able to listen to and get people on the same page, to focus on what can be done.”
The new superintendent should be acquainted with Michigan, he said, though that doesn’t necessarily mean an “outsider isn’t worth considering. Knowing the territory and having some established relationships, positive relationships, is going to be a big plus in this position.”
Like others, he wants someone with a proven track record. But one thing is crucial, he said.
“It has to be someone who has successfully guided a fairly diverse district, a sizable district, and made some progress and stayed with it for eight to 10 years or more.” Too often, Zeile said, leaders come and go and never live with the consequences of the changes they’ve made and someone else “has to pay the bills and clean up the mess.”
Other issues: In order to improve academic achievement, he said, “we have to avoid the churn of constant change. It has been the demand for change that keeps us from being able to learn from experience and do it better the next time.” On the issue of school choice, Zeile said “we need to acknowledge that school choice is here to stay.” He cited as evidence data that show a quarter of public school students in the state attend school outside of their traditional boundaries.
Contact Lori Higgins: 313-222-6651, firstname.lastname@example.org or @LoriAHiggins