August 15, 2014 at 10:12 am

Want better Michigan schools? Think vouchers

If Michigan allowed vouchers or tax credits, more students could have the opportunity to go to private schools like Detroit's Cristo Rey High School. (Charles V. Tines / The Detroit News)

When it comes to lackluster school results in Michigan, the problem isn’t charter schools. The state doesn’t need less choice. It needs more.

That’s not stopping the State Board of Education and Superintendent Mike Flanagan from focusing intently on charter schools—even though their job is overseeing all public schools in Michigan.

Earlier this week, Flanagan put 11 of Michigan’s 40 charter school authorizers on notice, saying they could lose their ability to charter additional schools if they don’t improve their “deficiencies” by the end of October. And the Democratic majority on the State Board sent a long to-do list to the Legislature related to tightening rules on charters.

That’s a boon to the teachers unions that helped elect these board members and hate charter schools, but it won’t do much to improve the education landscape. And don’t expect the GOP-controlled Legislature to fall in line.

Flanagan argues that he’s intent on improving performance and accountability at all schools. But the number of press releases he’s sending out, along with those from the State Board, point to an obsession with a group of schools that only educate 10 percent of Michigan’s student population.

As the Education Trust-Midwest points out, Michigan’s schools lag far behind the country’s best-performing states, in addition to often landing below the average on national standardized tests.

A report released earlier this year shows that Michigan ranks in the bottom five states for student learning progress over the last decade in reading and math.

If education leaders want to move the needle on schools, they should look beyond rewriting rules for charter schools and explore more options for school choice.

The Michigan Catholic Conference is an avid proponent of expanding choice to include private schools, with the firm belief that this is the best way to help all families — especially those in poverty.

“A lot of these schools have been around for 100 years,” says Brian Broderick, executive director of the Michigan Association of Non-public Schools. “They are anchors in their community.”

About 80,000 students attend private schools in the state.

Pro-voucher groups have been working with lawmakers, highlighting the correlation between Michigan’s low performance on national standardized test scores with its lack of true school choice.

Among surrounding states, Michigan had the lowest ACT composite scores for 2013, as well as the lowest test scores in fourth and eighth grade math and reading.

Every neighboring state, including Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin offers parents some form of public support for private education.

Yet language added by voters to the Michigan Constitution in 1970 prohibits the use of taxpayer funding in private schools — whether in the form of tuition tax credits and deductions or scholarships.

It would take a voter-approved amendment to change the constitution. It would be a difficult task, but support is growing and the Legislature and state school board should join the movement.

The Catholic Conference recently conducted a poll through MRG to gauge interest in expanding school choice. The poll found that 66 percent of Michiganians approved offering tax credits. Approval was highest in Detroit, with 84 percent in support.

Given how well voucher and tax credit programs work in other urban districts, this could be a great option for Detroit parents. The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, for example, has offered families private school choice for a decade. And it’s getting results. Students use scholarships to attend private schools, giving them the opportunity to escape underperforming public schools. In this program, 91 percent of students graduate — much higher than the 48.8 percent on-time graduation rate at D.C. public schools.

Michigan families should have these choices, too.

Ingrid Jacques is deputy editorial page editor of The Detroit News.
ijacques@detroitnews.com
https://twitter.com/ingrid_jacques