True Believer . . .


John Austin, dedicated advocate for public education, runs for third State Board term

by Cynthia Price
Legal News

John Austin has been president of the Michigan State Board of Education for four years, and is now vigorously running for his third eight-year term as a board member.

This is despite the fact that the busy Austin holds several professional positions, and  the State Board pays nothing but per-diem reimbursements capped at $3,000.

And it is in keeping with the fact, obvious to anyone who speaks to him even briefly, that Austin is absolutely dedicated to improving public education, and beyond that, fostering education’s role in improving the state of Michigan as a whole.

Austin has spent much of his recent career advocating for economic revitalization through taking advantage of the state’s natural assets.

He is the president of Michigan Economic Center (MEC) at the Prima Civitas Foundation. Prima Civitas is funded by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation “to pursue a broad range of initiatives and strategies designed to make Michigan globally competitive in the new economy.”

At the time of naming Austin to the MEC, Prima Civitas’s CEO Steve Webster said, “Austin has been a visionary architect of some of the most important moves Michigan has made to transform our economy. His leadership of the Michigan Economic Center will further support the Prima Civitas Foundation's mission of harnessing resources for Michigan to grow its economic base in a global economy.”

One of the MEC’s most recent projects is production of a guide called “Michigan Blue Economy,” co-authored with local scientist and head of the Grand Valley State University Annis Water Resources Institute Alan Steinman. The Center’s website,, pulls up a beautiful interactive version as well as the ability to access a PDF of the full report, which drew on the expertise of many West Michiganders.

Austin has extensively researched the “Blue Economy,” a term he himself coined, while a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institute, a position he still holds. This work suggests that protecting the Great Lakes and other water bodies is critical and will yield economic benefits),

After receiving his Bachelors with High Honors from Swarthmore College in Economics and Political Science, Austin worked on the Mondale for President campaign. As he pursued his Masters in Public Administration from Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, he did policy work for Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, and after graduating moved to Michigan, his wife Terese’s home.

Married 28 years, the couple live with their three children in Ann Arbor.

Before starting the Great Lakes Economic Initiative at Brookings, Austin worked for Public Policy Associates, and, in 2004, was Policy Director for the Governor’s Commission on Higher Education and Economic Growth.

In 2006 Austin created a number of reports for Brookings about the connection between a pollution-free environment, particularly water bodies, and economic development. These included the influential “Healthy Waters, Strong Economy.”

Austin’s current position at the MEC includes a wide variety of innovative economic projects — the four areas of MEC’s interests are New Agriculture, Clean Energy, Smart Water,  and New Mobility — but on the website, it is everywhere clear that the organization’s focus is on education.

In 2015 Austin brought together a wide variety of stakeholders from business, labor, education, and the legislature, to discover how to “forge a  new broadly-supported roadmap to reduce higher education cost, help more citizens young and old access this path to a better life, and put Michigan where it belongs among the best educated states in the country.” The results may be viewed at

Even his Blue Economy work, has been slightly controversial. But perhaps the greatest, and certainly the most recent, controversy of his State Board of Education tenure has been the board’s guidelines for schools’ treatment of LGBT?students.
“Basically, we’re saying, here are some reminders and some articulation as far as what schools can do to create a welcoming and effective learning environment for the 150,000 LGBT students in the state. LGBT kids are twice as likely to drop out, twice as likely to get bad grades, and much more likely to attempt suicide because of anxiety or mistreatment. So we suggest everything from LGBT?support groups to training staff.”
Though bullying is part of the equation, the State Board of Edu-
cation had already issued comprehen-
sive anti-bullying guidelines  in 2003.
Most controversial, the guidelines recommend allowing transgender students to use the bathroom they find comfortable. As many know, preventing this has been the subject of legislation in many states, including a bill that never moved forward in Michigan.
Because the State Board of Ed received over 13,000 comments, consideration has been delayed to allow for thoughtful response and revision. Austin expects it will be taken up at the September meeting.
The recommendations stemmed from requests for such guidance from public school districts and mirror those from the even more controversial Federal guidelines issued by the U.S. Department of Education.
On August 22, a judge in the Federal District Court for the Northern District of Texas issued an injunction against the administration enforcing those guidelines. The opinion stated that the lawsuit against the guidelines, brought by twelve states and later joined by Michigan, had some likelihood of prevailing.
One of the issues involved in the suit is interpretation of the term “sex” in Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, with the administration claiming that terminology was meant to cover gender identity, and opponents claiming, among other things, that interpreting it that way is “federal overreach.”
“I trust and I believe that the injunction will not stand,” Austin commented. “The interpretation of the civil rights law the administration was making is the right interpretation.
“Irrespective of that, we in Michigan should send messages that acknowledge and respect the rights of all our citizenry, including our LGBT citizens. Giving guidance that protects those rights is an important message — that we expect schools to help the approximately 150,000 LGBT?students in the state stay safe and feel as if they aren’t being ostracized,  so that they can be fully engaged in learning like everyone else.”
It is important to note that, in both the Federal and state cases, the guidelines are not binding, and each school district can adopt them or not.
Austin is running along with another Democratic nominee, Ismael Ahmed, the founder of ACCESS (Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services) in Dearborn. Ahmed is running on a platform of keeping “hatred, sexism, xenophobia, and racism out of Michigan schools,” investing in early education, and allowing local communities to oversee their public schools without outside interference.
Their Republican opponents will not be named until the August 26-27 Republican State Convention, to be held in Grand Rapids.