Michael Rice, the new State Superintendent in Michigan, is an experienced educator, not an ideologue or a politician.

His plans are sensible. He wants to steer the state back to responsible policies.

He was most recently Superintendent in Kalamazoo, which has one of the best school systems in the state. Itis terrific not because of its demographics or it’s scores but because of the Kalamazoo Promise, which has brought many students back to the public schools and led to systemwide improvements. The Promise, anonymously funded, guarantees that every high school graduate will receive a full scholarship to college. The longer a student is in the system, the more generous the scholarship.

School reform measures, such as Michigan’s third-grade retention law and the state’s A-F rating system; a statewide push to improve literacy and increase early childhood education; the publication of multiple research papers supporting increased funding for Michigan’s K-12 schools and the precarious future of the teaching profession all have been pushed to the education forefront in the state.

And they are all issues Rice says he is ready to work on.

“I feel differently in 2019,” Rice told The Detroit News in his office in Kalamazoo. “Those issues made me feel it was a moment. A generational moment in the state, and I wanted to contribute to that moment….”

While in Kalamazoo, and with the Kalamazoo Promise in place, Rice started full-day pre-kindergarten, more than doubled the number of students taking Advanced Placement courses and boosted high school graduation rates, school officials said…

Rice becomes superintendent at a critical time for Michigan’s 1.5 million students. Michigan ranks in the bottom third of states for fourth-grade reading, eighth-grade math and college attainment, and it’s 43rd out of 47 in school funding equity.

According to officials at Education Trust-Midwest, Michigan ranks in the bottom third of all states overall in early literacy and among the bottom states for every major group of students: African American, Latino, white, low-income and higher income students. In eighth-grade math, only about 1 in 10 African American students and 2 in 10 Latino students are proficient.

Rice says more spending on public schools is critical, especially to address the chronic underfunding of English language students, poor students and special needs students.

He says he wants to increase pay, benefits and professional development for teachers. New data from the National Education Association found the average salary for Michigan teachers declined last year, continuing the 12% decline over the last decade when adjusted for inflation. Only Indiana, West Virginia and Wisconsin have had worse declines in teacher pay.

Starting teacher salaries in Michigan rank 32nd in the nation, according to the report. Nationwide, 37% of districts have a starting salary of at least $40,000. In Michigan, only 12% of districts meet that threshold, according to the data.

“It is an existential moment for the profession and the profession of public education in the state of Michigan,” Rice said. “As goes the teaching profession so goes public education in the state.”

Rice opposes the “punitive” retention requirements of the state’s third-grade reading laws and the dual accountability system created when state lawmakers passed the A-F grading system during the lame duck session in December. 

There is hope for Michigan.