Michigan should mimic Florida in education policy

Ben DeGrow

While millions of Americans fixated on which presidential nominee would win the Sunshine State, school choice was winning down ballot.

Pro-school choice candidates from both parties took 20 of 21 state legislative races in Florida, while two new education reform supporters — both Democrats — prevailed in their congressional races too. It isn’t clear how much this issue affected these races, but the results suggest that supporting education reform and school choice may be an important attribute of an electable Florida politician.

Florida has a long history with school choice. Its tax credit scholarship program has survived and thrived over 15 years, overcoming political and legal challenges from teachers unions and school officials. Today, more than 90,000 low-income students benefit from incentivized corporate donations that enable them to pay tuition at a school of their choosing.

The disadvantaged students in Florida’s scholarship program make as much yearly learning progress as average students nationally. Ninety-five percent of participating parents express satisfaction with their child’s new school, including 75 percent who rate them “excellent.” Research also has found that the program helps improve the performance of nearby public schools, while saving money for state taxpayers.

Florida also offers two different publicly funded programs for students diagnosed with special needs. McKay Scholarship users reported far fewer problems with bullying and harassment in their new private schools. Meanwhile, the newer Gardiner Scholarship program gives families even more power to customize funding to serve their children’s unique needs.

Choice has been a key part of a winning formula. Since 2003, Florida fourth-graders have overtaken and passed their Michigan counterparts in reading, math and science achievement on national tests — despite having more students who are low-income and learning English as a second language.

The good news extends beyond test scores. Peer-reviewed studies show attending a Florida charter high school increases not only a student’s likelihood of graduating and enrolling in college, but also their earnings early in their careers.

The table is set for Michigan, in its own way, to exceed expectations for the range of educational opportunities available to families. Many soon-to-be state representatives arrive with fewer allegiances to entrenched institutions, and the chance to take bold steps to put greater power back in parents’ hands. Potential policy changes lie ahead that could give many more families the option to craft an effective education experience for their children.

Our state’s School Reform Office has declared the need to close down persistently failing schools as a 2017 priority. Without compromising accountability, Michigan ought to revise how schools are rated so that it more fairly acknowledges the progress they achieve and to ensure information is reported to parents in a clear, meaningful and timely manner. Parents also need to be guaranteed a public conversation about the data behind proposed school closures and the other options available to them.

The state’s interdistrict Schools of Choice program needs to be upgraded to make transportation more accessible to families searching for better or more suitable options. More funds, including special education dollars, ought to follow students where they want to be served. Policymakers also should explore giving innovative school districts more freedom from bureaucratic mandates, setting them free to better meet individual students’ learning needs.

Making the leap to full private school choice, like parents in Florida enjoy, is a bigger hurdle in Michigan, with our uniquely restrictive state constitution. Even so, the state’s current struggles with overall achievement and more restless family demand for effective opportunities may reveal a path for concerted leadership to overcome or break down that formidable barrier.

Ben DeGrow is director of education policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.