Henry Ford once observed that “the question of ‘who should be boss’ is like asking ‘who ought to be the tenor in the quartet.’ Obviously, the man who can sing tenor.”
Skepticism regarding government competence is commonplace today. The mistakes that justify that skepticism are easily identified. Yet just as a good reporter can restore (however briefly) one’s confidence in the media, individual policymakers can remind us why elections matter. For all the headlines and cover photos equating Michigan to a relic of history, the Michigan House of Representatives heeded the advice of Mr. Ford when selecting their Education Committee chair, Rep. Lisa Posthumus Lyons.
The challenges Michigan faces are not unique to the Iron Belt, but Detroit’s struggles have made the state a testing ground for the axiom that that which can’t continue, won’t. Automation has hit the state’s manufacturing sector hard. The Great Recession dealt a severe blow to the market for long-term durable goods produced in Michigan, most notably autos and appliances. An aging workforce nervously monitors retirement nest eggs supported by public and private employers that have often been over-leveraged. The stakes for improving education and training increase as the electorate grows restless.
Enter Rep. Lyons. This modern marvel of multitasking chairs not one but TWO committees in the state legislature while raising four children with her high school sweetheart. There is little disconnect between heart and head when it comes to her urgency for quality K-12 education. Her children all attend Michigan’s public schools, and she has also worked for clients in the real estate sector. That combination makes for one focused public servant.
The daughter of a former Lieutenant Governor, Lyons understood early that much would be expected of her. She began her career in public service and has served as chair of a nonprofit dedicated to serving neglected and abused children, along with several other community service efforts. She has taken on a comprehensive rewrite of Michigan’s campaign finance laws this session despite also shepherding one of the most aggressive education reform efforts in the country. Heaven help the poor child on Coach Lyons’ YMCA soccer team who attempts to complain of fatigue.
The biggest credit to Rep. Lyons, however, might be what is hidden in plain sight; in what one does not see in Michigan’s education debates today: distraction. Even reform-friendly states will typically see hearings held (even floor votes) on bills that attempt to add awareness of every disease to the school curriculum, legislate away bad student behavior, or give students a day off to attend the state fair.
Evidence of such measures is difficult to find in Rep. Lyons’ committee. Hearings begin and end on time. Big issues like reading proficiency and school accountability dominate the agenda. Bills receive additional hearings and debate when needed. But debates do not morph into dissertations. Business leaders would feel quite at ease in her committee room. But those of us who live in the public policy realm are more used to the potential for chaos during hearings, much like the fan who went to the fight and saw a hockey game break out.
In his farewell speech, US Senator Phil Gramm said that “I reminded myself every single day that I came [to Washington] with an agenda and my agenda was not to empty that inbox. My agenda is to change the country.”
This mother of four has met her moment. Time is running short for Michigan to focus on the important stuff and modernize its education policies. And there is still much to do. Thankfully Rep. Lyons knows how to manage a calendar.
About the author
Neil serves as a Regional Advocacy Director at the Foundation for Excellence in Education. He came to the Foundation after 3½ years with the Indiana Department of Education, first as legislative liaison and policy advisor and most recently as director of the Hoosier state’s new school voucher program. Neil has also served as a policy analyst for Educational Testing Service, and began his career on the staff of then-U.S. Senator George Voinovich. A native Ohioan, Neil is a proud graduate of Notre Dame and holds a Masters degree from Johns Hopkins. He is also a long-suffering Cleveland Browns fan. Neil serves as the Regional Advocacy Director for the Central region and his portfolio of states includes: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Wisconsin. Contact Neil at Neil@excelined.org