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Pamela Pugh elected Michigan school board president

State Board of Education President Pamela Pugh with state Superintendent Michael Rice.

On Tuesday, Pamela Pugh was elected president of the Michigan Board of Education.

Courtesy of Simone Lightfoot

Democrat Pamela Pugh, the new voice of the state school board, vowed to work closely with the Michigan Department of Education to accomplish a long list of legislative priorities that includes everything from gun control to free school lunches.

Pugh was elected president of the Board of Education Tuesday in a 6-0 vote, with the two Republicans on the panel voting “present” rather than opposing her. She takes office at a significant moment: Her party now controls the state House, Senate, and executive branch for the first time in nearly four decades.

The state board is responsible for the education of the state’s 1.3 million public school students, but it has little authority, other than to hire and fire the state superintendent and to approve standards that local districts use to set curriculums. In Michigan, most education policy decisions are the purview of the Legislature.

That means the board often exercises its power through the bully pulpit.

“The people who are on our board have mouths big enough and loud enough, and the majority have the right intentions as well as the right skill sets to influence and shape the agenda,” Pugh said in an interview. “I do think we’ll have influence, and we won’t be unaligned” with the Legislature.

Among her priorities are repealing the third-grade reading law’s retention rule, requiring more fiscal transparency from charter schools, adequately staffing schools, and funding schools more equitably.

State Superintendent Michael Rice shares those goals and has many more, which he presented to the board on Tuesday. Among them are:

  • Making it easier for retired school employees to return to work in schools.
  • Reducing barriers for counselors and teachers certified in other states to work in Michigan.
  • Strengthening gun control laws to address school violence.
  • Ensuring that children in foster care receive credit for courses they take while in congregate care facilities.
  • Implementing a weighted school funding system that ensures adequate resources for students with special needs.
  • Reviving a temporary provision that allowed school staff to substitute teach last school year even if they hadn’t been to college. The measure was meant to help alleviate a teacher shortage but few districts used it.
  • Providing teacher retention bonuses.
  • Streamlining teacher evaluations.
  • Accelerating teacher preparation programs to get pre-kindergarten teachers in classrooms faster and reduce the wait list for the state’s Great Start Readiness Program.  
  • Requiring parents to register home-schooled children with the state.
  • Expanding Great Start Readiness to provide instruction five days per week and 38 weeks per year. Currently, it operates four days per week for 30 weeks.
  • Training tutors.
  • Creating family literacy centers throughout the state.
  • Ensuring funding continues for school mental health services.
  • Providing more funding for career and technical education programs.
  • Providing free school lunches to every student.

Many of those proposals were introduced during the last legislative session, when Republicans controlled both chambers, but were not brought to the floor for votes.

“We’ll get some traction this session,” said Marty Ackley, the Michigan Department of Education’s director of public and governmental affairs. 

The two Republicans on the board — Tom McMillin of Oakland Township and Nikki Snyder of Dexter — said they oppose some of the agenda items, particularly registration requirements for home-schooled students.

“It might sound innocent at first, but it’s a first step toward control,” McMillin said. 

The families who home-school their children exercised their constitutional rights to leave public schools because they weren’t the right choice for them, Snyder said, so it isn’t right to require them to register with the public school system. 

Pugh expects the new Legislature will be more likely to advance the Department of Education’s proposals. Legislative leaders already have said they share some of those priorities.

“We really have an aligned vision,” Pugh said. “With the expertise we have (on the state board) and the relationships we have, we believe we can move quickly to support the Legislature to make decisions.”

Pugh, of Saginaw, is a public health expert and an environmental health consultant who works with urban communities. She was first elected to the board in 2014 and most recently served as vice president.

She comes from a family of educators. She said her mother was a paraprofessional, her father was a professor and administrator at Delta College, and her grandfather Millage Pugh built a one-room schoolhouse so Black children in Shubuta, Mississippi, could get an education.

Yvette White, president of the Michigan NAACP and a longtime friend, said Pugh will be a good advocate for children who need help the most.

“She’s always reaching out and speaking up on equity issues,” White said. “It’s important to always have someone at the table, to have a voice at the table, who is focused on the issues that are important to the community as a whole.”   

Other officers also were elected Tuesday, all on 6-0 votes with Republicans again voting “present.” They are: co-vice presidents Ellen Cogen Lipton of Huntington Woods and Tiffany Tilley of West Bloomfield; Secretary Judith Pritchett of Washington Township, and Treasurer Marshall Bullock of Detroit. All are Democrats.

Bullock is the newest member of the board, having been appointed last month to fill Democrat Jason Strayhorn’s unexpired term. Strayhorn resigned in July and moved out of state.

Tracie Mauriello covers state education policy for Chalkbeat Detroit and Bridge Michigan. Reach her at tmauriello@chalkbeat.org.

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