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Column: Support growing for school choice

Bruce Braun and Brian Dougherty

Given the immense amount of political polarization in our country today — when Americans seem to disagree on everything but the color of the sky — it might surprise you to learn that an innovative policy commands overwhelming support from Michigan residents of all political stripes.

That popular policy is school choice. The National School Choice Week (Jan. 22-28) celebration offers a timely moment to consider the support for educational opportunities Michiganians have voiced. A Mackinac Center poll taken this past summer, just before the start of the academic year, showed a wide breadth of support for school choice.

Broad majorities of likely Michigan voters strongly or somewhat agreed with the sentiment that students should be allowed to attend a nonpublic or parochial school (88 percent), a traditional public school anywhere in the student’s district (86 percent), a charter school (80 percent), home schooling by their parents (74 percent), or a public school in a different district (62 percent). By contrast, only 30 percent of respondents believed that “students should only be able to attend their own neighborhood schools;” two-thirds (67 percent) of likely voters disagreed, 42 percent strongly.

The poll also found continued support for existing forms of school choice.

For instance, 55 percent of likely Michigan voters support charter schools—publicly funded schools with greater flexibility and freedom to innovate. Conversely, only 26 percent of likely voters oppose charter schools, resulting in greater than two-to-one support.

Just as important, the survey indicated an openness among likely voters to consider additional educational options. Pollsters asked about tax credit scholarship programs, a popular form of school choice in 20 other states, in which individuals receive a tax write-off for donating to organizations that subsidize tuition scholarships for students to attend nonpublic schools. By large majorities, respondents strongly or somewhat favored allowing tax credit scholarships for special needs students (77 percent), low-income students (70 percent), all students (69 percent), and students in failing schools (62 percent).

The survey results also reveal why Michigan likely voters support school choice: because they’re concerned about the quality of education Michigan students receive. Asked to grade public schools in Michigan, respondents gave an average grade point average of 2.25, down from a 2.45 GPA in a similar survey two years ago.

Those low marks from voters might stem from the fact that Michigan students continue to underperform the national average in fourth grade math and reading tests, as well as 8th grade mathematics. While Michigan has lost ground on these tests, neighboring states — all of which provide families some form of nonpublic school choice — are doing better.

And for the same reason, it is perhaps unsurprising that areas that have seen the biggest turmoil in recent years showed the strongest support for school choice. In Detroit, where exactly zero respondents gave the city’s public schools an A grade, a majority (51 percent) of likely voters believe parents have too few educational options for their children.

More and more families across the state are joining Motor City parents in voting with their feet in search of better educational opportunities. As of the fall of 2015, nearly one-quarter of Michigan students participated in school choice programs, whether by attending other public schools (13 percent) or charter schools (10 percent). And Michigan charter schools have proven their added value, giving students an average of an extra two months of learning in reading in math than their traditional public school counterparts—a gap that widens to three extra months of learning in Detroit.

These results not only explain the broad public support for school choice, but also are driving the demand for more quality options.

As we gather at more than 20,000 events nationwide to celebrate the opportunities choice can bring, we can be thankful that these exciting new educational models have shown their success in Michigan.

Dr. Bruce Braun is superintendent of schools for the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod – Michigan. Dr. Brian Dougherty is superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Detroit.