Three reasons to support school choice in Detroit
There are competing bills in the Michigan House and Senate over what to do about the insolvent Detroit Public Schools. Both plans give the district a financial bailout but disagree about what additional reforms are needed in the city, especially regarding public charter schools.
The Senate plan would establish a Detroit Education Commission, which would give a mayor-appointed board the ability to disallow new charter schools or shut down those in existence. The DEC would limit schools “based on the siting of existing public schools” and a measure of its “success” relies on improving the financial condition of DPS.
The Senate’s proposal requires the DEC to increase the number of students enrolled in DPS-run schools, and the only way of doing that effectively is to put a moratorium on new charters and close some of the current ones that parents have chosen for their children.
That’s a goal aimed at preserving an institution for adults, not creating the best learning opportunities for kids.
Here are three good reasons to support school choice in Detroit:
■Charter schools in Detroit significantly outperform DPS-run schools.
The best study on charter schools in Michigan is from the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University. This study paired individual students in charter schools with their “virtual twins” in district-run schools, based on their gender, race, grade level, family income, and academic ability as measured by standardized tests. It then compared the gains that these students in charter schools made compared to their “control group,” students just like them enrolled in district-run schools.
The study found that charters did better than conventional public schools in 52 of the 56 different outcomes tested and that Detroit charters gave students an extra two to three months of learning each year. The study called Detroit charters a “model” for other cities.
Meanwhile, on every test since 2009, Detroit’s traditional public school students scored the worst in the nation among big cities on the nation’s report card.
■Charter schools cost much less than Detroit Public Schools.
According to state data, Detroit Public Schools receives $18,602 per student from state, local and federal revenue. Charter schools in the city receive an average of $10,668 per pupil — only a bit more than half as much. So even if Detroit’s traditional schools were performing as well (which they aren’t), they are spending much more in the process.
■This is about more than just Detroit.
For decades, school choice has been steadily growing around the country and largely with bipartisan support. And for good reason: Most of the evidence from scholars across the political spectrum shows that alternative public school options, like charter schools, vouchers, tax credits and homeschooling, tend to improve educational outcomes for both students enrolled in these programs and for students who stay enrolled in traditional schools. Previously, only parents wealthy enough to move from one district to another or pay for private schools had these types of options.
Legislatures across the country have been expanding the freedom of more parents to choose the school they think is best for their children. A retrenchment on this bipartisan effort would be a blow to the larger school choice movement that has swept across this country.
Providing school options for low-income parents has become a political issue, because parents often choose nonunionized charter or private schools. So unions are pushing back, urging politicians to ban these choices for low-income families. Unions and their anti-choice allies are essentially trying to ensure that only the rich should be able to choose schools for their children.
In the end, it’s clear that Detroit Public Schools is going to get a financial bailout. The proposals being debated also give control of the district back to a locally elected school board.
That’s fine: Let Detroit officials run DPS. But most charters are authorized by officials at public universities and only exist when parents choose them as the best option for their children. Aside from the union and district’s political agenda, there is no compelling case for taking away this option from low-income families and restricting school choice in Detroit.
Ben DeGrow is director of education policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.