Greater parental choice in schools offers real hope
The tale of two recent rallies contrasts Detroit’s current education struggles with the potential for something better.
Protesting deplorable building conditions, teachers in the highly funded but poorly managed Detroit Public Schools have repeatedly shut down schools by participating in a coordinated sickout strike. On some days, upward of 90 percent of DPS students were left without a place to learn.
Nearly a thousand miles away, Martin Luther King III headlined a Tallahassee rally in defense of a tax-credit program that currently provides 78,000 low-income Florida kids with scholarships to attend the private school of their choice. About 10,000 people gathered to send a message to those seeking to shut down the program through the courts: Don’t take away our opportunity to prepare for a successful future.
“There’s nothing more important than ensuring that our children have the best education,” said King said the day after his father’s legacy was commemorated nationwide.
Detroit’s pronounced educational woes defy quick and easy solutions. Yet the path of greater parental choice pursued by Florida and by other states offers some real hope.
Protecting the range of choices currently available to many Detroit students represents a reasonable start. Lansing’s recently introduced reform package (Senate bills 710 and 711) for DPS clears that necessary bar.
But policymakers also need to focus on empowering more parents and expanding their range of quality options. Detroit’s existing crop of charter schools — which remained open during the sickouts — has a heavily low-income student population yet outperforms district peers. The city’s charter students gain an extra 70 days of learning each school year, according to a 2015 Stanford University study.
Results still leave much to be desired, though, as the city’s students achieve well below the state average. Nearly five years ago, legislation removed the statewide cap on how many charter schools could open, yet far too few of the nation’s proven charter operators have entered Detroit.
Even if better schools show up, though, many families couldn’t reach them. Creative ways to close the transportation gap would improve access. A new entity could be set up with the sole purpose of using existing DPS resources to provide publicly funded transportation for all children in Detroit, including those enrolled in charter and private schools.
Parents and students in Detroit need an education revolution. Unfortunately, Michigan’s uniquely restrictive constitution has removed one method of re-imagining education in Motown.
A 45-year-old constitutional amendment prevents parents from using public support to choose private schools for their children. Without public support, most parents in Detroit can’t afford these safer and often more effective educational options.
It doesn’t have to stay that way. National School Choice Week (Jan. 24-30) prompts us to consider what else is possible.
Neighboring Indiana, Ohio and Wisconsin give thousands of low-income students public support to attend private schools, either through voucher or tax credit programs.
Rigorous research is nearly unanimous in affirming the benefits. Choice boosts academic outcomes and graduation rates. Further, public schools have demonstrably improved from the extra injection of healthy competition.
The tide has turned nationally. Most states now offer some form of K-12 scholarship aid to families that choose a private education.
States with broader choice see public schools maintain or grow per student financial support. Meanwhile, more students find suitable education pathways that better prepare them for college or career. Parents routinely express extremely high levels of satisfaction.
Every child in Michigan deserves the opportunity to access an effective education. Here’s hoping Detroit’s next big education rally celebrates a host of new options that brighten the future for many students and their families.
Ben DeGrow is the director of education policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.