Telford: Snyder’s school choice plan falls short

Erik Telford

Gov. Rick Snyder certainly didn’t create Detroit’s problems, but a large part of his legacy will be tied to its recovery. With the city finally emerging from bankruptcy, Snyder has sets his sights on fixing Detroit’s massively dysfunctional public schools. Unfortunately during his recent State of the State address, Snyder set narrow goals focused on mending a broken system rather than laying down the groundwork for expanded educational opportunities.

“Quite often we’re addressing symptoms. We’re not addressing root causes. In some cases, we’re actually facilitating dependency on government,” Snyder said. “That’s not right.”

However, while Snyder’s focus on third-grade reading and statewide teacher evaluations is laudable, he concentrates too heavily on a desired outcome rather than the process of achieving it.

Detroit Public Schools has been under emergency management for more than five years and is running a nine-figure deficit. Thousands of children, particularly those in the city’s most economically depressed wards, are assigned to failing schools that consistently perform below statewide standards. Parents in these neighborhoods are trapped by their ZIP codes and school district lines drawn arbitrarily by bureaucrats—if they believe their child deserves better than a failing school, they have few options beyond moving or paying out of pocket for a private school.

Snyder should be taking this opportunity to forge a new path for educational choice in the Great Lakes State and discuss charter school restructuring and open enrollment—recently adopted by the similarly struggling Newark Public Schools. Open enrollment would unbind families from their ZIP codes by allowing parents to enter their child in a lottery for any of the city’s public or charter schools. This would be a significant improvement on the status quo; currently, if a public school on the other side of town better serves a child’s needs, there is little a parent can do about it. Open enrollment levels the playing field by giving each child equal opportunity to attend the public school that best suits him or her.

Detroit, in its present state, has too few adequately performing public schools to accommodate the children that would likely participate. In addition to measures that will reform and strengthen Detroit’s public schools for generations to come, the city would benefit from a pilot private school choice program aimed at helping the city’s most underprivileged children.

Public-school parents pay for their children’s education through their property taxes, and they should have the right to direct those tax dollars to be used in a way that will better serve their child’s unique needs. Returning these tax payments to parents in the form of scholarships (instead of simply delivering them to the assigned school) flips the balance of power in education, giving low-income parents the same freedom of choice as higher-income parents by putting the cost of private schools within reach.

Milwaukee, a smaller city whose public school system had faced similar challenges to Detroit’s, successfully implemented a similar program 25 years ago. The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program offers scholarships, averaging over $6,000 in value, to about 25,000 students from low-to-moderate income families, many of whom had been assigned by the government to failing schools. These scholarships are only made available to families at or below 300 percent of the federal poverty line, which ensures that public funds are directed to parents of children truly in need of assistance.

The Milwaukee program has shown firsthand how granting parents the power of choice directly benefits underprivileged students. High school students benefitting from the Milwaukee scholarships test higher in math, reading, and science than similarly disadvantaged students not enrolled in the program, and also graduate at an 18 percent higher rate—a type of progress that benefits not only the students, but their entire community. Urban high school graduation rates are directly correlated with crime rates, and students who drop out of high school are significantly more likely to be unemployed, live in poverty, and join gangs than their peers who earn diplomas.

Likewise, Cleveland has found success with a similar program for low-income families, offering scholarships to over 7,000 children living at or below 200 percent of the poverty level. This program has simultaneously made options available to parents and improved traditional public schools by reducing class sizes and giving teachers more time to tend to the needs of individual students. The State of Ohio offers a similar scholarship program on a statewide level for 2,300 special-needs children, allowing their parents to afford specialized schools that can serve these children in a way public schools cannot.

These programs affect real change without raising taxes or straining municipal budgets, but on a deeper level, they also deliver hope to families who are trapped by inadequate school options. The Milwaukee and Cleveland programs address the root cause and give children a better chance to escape the cycle of poverty. Using these blueprints in Detroit would serve the entire state. For a governor who hasn’t been afraid of bold reform in the past, Snyder’s education agenda was unfortunately underwhelming.

Erik Telford is acting president of the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity.