Five years ago, Dayna Polehanki was the only K-12 educator on the state Senate Education Committee. It had been at least 10 years since a career educator served on the committee, Polehanki lamented at the time.
Now Polehanki, a Democrat and former English teacher from Livonia, leads the committee. Three other legislative panels that control education policy and spending also are newly under the leadership of former teachers, giving them unprecedented power in the Democratic-controlled Legislature over what Michigan children learn, how they are taught, and how schools are funded.
Teachers have held leadership posts in the Legislature before, but lawmakers and lobbyists said they can’t remember a time when so many former educators were in such powerful positions.
“To me, it sends a message about the priorities of the majority party,” said Bob Kefgen, lobbyist for the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals. “It means the voices of educators will be driving the conversation in both education policy and budgeting.”
The appointments and committee assignments were announced Thursday by the Legislature’s new Democratic leaders: House Speaker Joe Tate of Detroit and Senate Majority Leader Winnie Brinks of Grand Rapids.
The committee leaders will help advance a Democratic education agenda that includes more money for school facilities, a new school funding formula, bonuses for teachers, an end to the retention policy in the state’s third-grade reading law, and new financial transparency rules for charter schools. Those are priorities Democrats couldn’t get any traction on last session, when Republicans controlled the agenda.
Republican priorities have been centered around parents’ rights and curriculum transparency. Last session members debated how schools teach about race, whether to allow transgender athletes on school teams, and whether to require teachers to post lesson plans online so parents and activists can monitor what’s taught.
“The most important work of the Legislature happens in the humble committee meeting,” Brinks said in a press release. “It’s where problems are identified and people can participate in shaping policy solutions.”
State Rep. Matt Koleszar was tapped to lead the House Education Committee. He taught English and social studies for 12 years at Airport Community Schools in Monroe County. At least six of the committee’s other 12 members also have classroom experience, Koleszar said.
State Rep. Regina Weiss of Oak Park was named chairperson of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on School Aid and Education. She taught English and social studies in the Detroit Public Schools Community District for five years.
Sen. Darrin Camilleri of Trenton will lead the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on PreK-12. Camilleri taught at Consortium College Preparatory High School in Detroit.
Polehanki taught high school English and is a former district teacher of the year for New Haven Community Schools.
The appointments mean that teachers’ voices will be part of every meaningful discussion about education policy and funding in the Legislature for the next two years.
“These are committees that are going to be making huge influential decisions about the policies we set to make sure our kids are succeeding, to make sure our educators are respected, and that our schools are properly funded,” Weiss said. “This is the first time we’ve had educators completely leading this charge.”
That’s encouraging, said Thomas Morgan, spokesman for the Michigan Education Association, the large teachers union.
“So often you see lawmakers and bureaucrats getting together and deciding what the policies are going to be without bothering to go actually talk to teachers and support staff on the front lines who actually work in the schools,” Morgan said.
Polehanki, Koleszar, Camilleri, and Weiss “understand what it’s like to lead a classroom, they understand what it’s like to deal with all the stressors that educators face on a daily basis, and they are legitimately enthusiastic about helping to address the issues in our schools,” he said.
In separate interviews, the four emphasized their commitment to public schools.
That makes advocates for school choice wary that the former public school teachers will give short shrift to other education alternatives.
“Lawmakers should be working to ensure that students have access to the fullest range of educational opportunities,” said Holly Wetzel, spokesperson for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, which has advocated for charter schools, online schools, and private school vouchers.
Several Republicans on the committees did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Friday, but they are likely to ensure that perspectives like Wetzel’s are heard.
For example, state Rep. Jaime Greene, the House Education Committee’s Republican vice chairperson, campaigned on a parents’ rights platform, saying that she supports families’ rights to choose where and how their children are taught. She promised on her campaign website to “stand up for parents having a vital role in education, no matter what form they choose.”
The previous chair of the House Education Committee was Republican Pamela Hornberger, who had been a teacher in Imlay City Community Schools. Hornberger, who ran unsuccessfully for Senate last year, is no longer in the Legislature. The Senate committee was led by Lana Theiss of Brighton, who does not have a teaching background.
Weiss said she ran for office in 2020 because she felt teachers didn’t have enough of a voice in Lansing.
“It seemed like a disconnect between the policymakers in Lansing and the people who were actually on the ground being affected by the policy changes,” she said. Lawmakers weren’t doing things that mattered — such as ensuring safe and secure school buildings, she said.
“Every district in Michigan is on their own when it comes to school funding so we have immense inequality,” said Weiss, who described teaching in Detroit classrooms that had rats, roaches, and leaky roofs.
She said her committee will prioritize developing a system to fund school infrastructure improvements.
That will be a Senate priority, too, Camilleri said.
“We need to make sure our school systems across the state can modernize their school buildings, whether that means pulling down more federal dollars or thinking about ways to spend our state dollars differently,” he said. “It’s time for us to invest infrastructure dollars.”
Correction: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Jaime Greene’s name, to clarify that Dayna Polehanki was the only K-12 educator when she first joined the Senate education committee, and to correct when Regina Weiss was elected to the legislature.
Tracie Mauriello covers state education policy for Chalkbeat Detroit and Bridge Michigan. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.