Future of School Choice Visible in Michigan

Published April 1, 1998

In a notable February 3 editorial, The Detroit News urged policy-makers and politicians to recognize that “the tide has shifted” in the school choice movement and that it no longer consists of “academics and think tank executives discussing scholarly research.” Instead, the movement is now driven by parents, educators, and religious leaders who are dissatisfied with the quality of education delivered by the public schools and are actively working to develop other viable alternatives, such as charter schools and vouchers for use at private schools.

Prompting the News‘ commentary was a January 31 “Choosing Our Future” education summit in Detroit. The event was not the success its organizers hoped for, attracting only 500 people, roughly half the number expected. But what the audience lacked in quantity it more than made up for in quality. That point was not lost on the News.

“Impassioned black activists and Detroit parents and pastors called for school choice that includes private schools, transforming an ivory tower debate into a nascent political movement,” noted the newspaper’s editors a few days after the conference.

“Public school choice is no longer radical, but middle of the road,” they concluded. “Those who refuse to expand it by lifting the statewide cap on charter schools or allowing families to choose public schools outside their county are hardly ‘progressive.'”

Speakers at the conference engaged their audience with the rhetoric and passion of the civil rights movement, and at one point invoked the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with a reading of his speech, “A Time to Break Silence.”

Detroit neighborhood reformer Rev. Eddie Edwards also drew on the slain civil rights leader’s legacy when he echoed comments by King’s niece, Alveda King: “School choice is the civil rights issue of the ’90s. Choice lets families vote with their feet, and there’s nothing more democratic than that.”

Hosted by the Detroit Partnership for Parental Choice, the community-wide summit featured keynote speaker Dr. Howard Fuller, who was Milwaukee Public Schools Superintendent when the city became the first in the nation to expand parental choice to include both public and private schools. Other speakers included Detroit Ashland University professor Ned Adams and Dr. Paul DeWeese, chairman of the TEACH Michigan Education Fund.

When Fuller decried those “who say they support change as long as nothing changes” and those who were more interested in getting their paychecks than in educating children, he found support from Democratic political activist Anita Nelam.

“The fact is we’ve been reforming for 20 years and children are still coming out not able to function as productive citizens,” said Nelam. “We just can’t wait any longer.”

“Detroit has some excellent schools and dedicated teachers, but we all know that some schools are failing our kids,” noted Edwards. “Empowering parents to choose the right school for their child will help us save a generation and force bad schools to improve or be replaced.”

Interest in the parent empowerment movement has grown rapidly in the last decade as tens of thousands of parents have taken advantage of new options such as charter schools and district choice schools. Almost every choice school in Michigan has a waiting list.

“Parents want more school choice,” said Nelam. “The way the system spends money, not enough trickles down to the classroom. But when parents control which school gets their children’s education dollars, administrators will listen. Parents will get more involved, too.”

TEACH Michigan’s Bryan Taylor characterized the conference as “a landmark event,” with parents, the community, and the coalition of clergy coming together to take ownership of the reform initiative.

“It was very positive,” he added. “One former school board member really identified with the message and said that all schools should be schools of choice.”

“All parents have a right to control their own tax dollars,” said Nelam, who is also the principal of Friends School, an independent Quaker school in Detroit. “They should have the right to send their children to a school that best fits their needs.”

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].