Michigan Parents Wnat More Choice, Report Says

Published October 30, 2009

Parents across Michigan want more options for their children’s education, according to a report issued by the Michigan Senate Fiscal Agency.

“Explaining School Choice” reports the number of students not enrolled in their state-assigned schools rose 69 percent between 2002 and 2008—showing more parents are voting with their feet under the state’s open-enrollment provision.

The report, released in August, shows more than 11 percent (183,000 children) of students statewide attend schools not within their resident districts. All told, between 1993 and 2003 the number of students in their state-assigned school fell from 80 percent to 74 percent.

Parents Like Options

Michael Van Beek, director of education policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, says the report “clearly demonstrates that when given the opportunity, parents are increasingly exercising their ability to choose the school that is best for their children.

“It also shows,” he said, “that parents are exercising their ability to choose their children’s school through any means available to them—whether that be open-enrollment policies among traditional schools or charter schools.”

Kyle Olson, vice president of the Education Action Group, an advocacy group based in Muskegon, agrees.

“The report shows when parents are given options, many take advantage of it,” he said. “Additionally, I believe it makes the case that if parents were given greater options, they would take advantage of those too.”

Unions Blocking Reform

Michigan has allowed charter schools since 1994. The state currently has 232 charter schools, including the nine-year-old state-run Michigan Virtual School, which educated 16,000 students in 2008-2009.

“But it has a limited capacity due to reliance on state appropriations and fees paid by school districts,” Van Beek said. “Plus, there are legal limits on the number of courses a student can take online.”

Meanwhile, the Michigan Education Association teachers union is working overtime to restrain or eliminate all school choice initiatives, Van Beek said. But “Michigan parents know what type of school will best serve the unique needs of their children. These parents exercising their right to choose have decided that the school to which their children were automatically assigned based purely on their home address is not meeting their needs,” he added.

Greg McNeilly, interim director of Great Lakes Education Project, an education political action group in Lansing, said legislators are becoming more aware of the growing demand for choice from parents.

“The report shows two things,” he said. “First, as parents learn and become cultured to the choice options, they act on that liberty, providing a better school for their kids. Second, in Michigan it notes a special challenge, since we have limited options.”

Seeking Accountability

“Many students are trapped in bad schools and find it very difficult to escape to better ones,” Olson said. “Competition creates a better product—in this case, schools. Just like buying a car, if a parent is able to vote with [his] feet, schools that are thriving will continue to thrive, and failing schools will lose students and hopefully be held accountable.”

Van Beek agreed.

“The impact of more and more parents choosing the best school for their kids is that conventional schools are starting to take notice and are working harder to make their schools attractive to parents,” he said. “For instance, Grand Rapids, Lansing, Detroit, and Flint all have advertising budgets and public relations campaigns to spin a positive light on the schools in their districts.”

‘A Good First Step’

Though Olson praised the report as “a good first step,” he said it has to be followed up with legislative action if there is to be positive change for Michigan’s kids.

“Let’s keep it in perspective—a policy analyst issues a report,” he said. “No increase in the charter school cap has been proposed. No tuition tax credit legislation has been introduced.”

Van Beek said Michigan’s climate is inhospitable to education reform.

“Unfortunately, Michigan has the most debilitating state constitution when it comes to expanding school choice,” he said. “Vouchers and tuition tax credits are strictly prohibited. To fill this gap, Michigan does have a large number of charter schools, but there is a cap of 150 charter schools that can be authorized by state universities. While there are some community college-authorized charters, they are limited to a specific geographical region, except for one tribal-controlled community college. School districts can authorize charters, but very few have.

“The charter school cap should be lifted and open-enrollment policies should be expanded to provide more parents with more opportunities to choose their kids’ school,” Van Beek added. “Also, districts currently have a choice about whether or not they want to allow for open enrollment. All Michigan school districts should allow parents to choose the school within the district or in a nearby district which best suits their needs.”

‘Change or Die’

McNeilly says the situation is dire.

“It’s vital that Michigan continue to expand choices for all children if it is to have any hope of providing a real future for its families within the realities of a globally competitive marketplace of education,” he said. “More choice means changing from the past—and in Michigan, it’s change or die.”

Sarah McIntosh ([email protected]) teaches constitutional law and American politics at Wichita State University in Kansas.