Column: Public education needs more than school choice

David Hecker

Those of us committed to improving the quality of education for all students in Michigan should stop debating the relative performance of traditional districts and charter schools. We miss the forest for the trees by the endless back and forth over who looks a few points better in which study. The pertinent question is: how did Michigan students go from performing at levels consistent with most other states to being last among all states in improving student proficiency, as reported in a 2017 Brookings Institution study.

Over 20 years ago, Michigan began experimenting with public education by implementing aggressive free-market principles including competition, privatization and consumer choice. Proponents of this experiment promised that students, families and our education system as a whole would prosper.

At an individual level, who can be against “choice?” We can all think of students and families who have benefited from their choices. However, it is now clear that policies that pit schools against each other to chase funding and turn millions of public dollars over to private companies – at a rate higher than any other state – have weakened Michigan’s public education system, giving families worse “choices” every year.

Research and experience tell us what is needed for all schools—traditional and charter—to improve and best serve our students and their families.

We must invest in all public schools, rather than pitting them against one another. Our schools should anchor our communities, build partnerships with parents, residents and community institutions, and provide wrap-around services to address obstacles that often prevent children in poverty from reaching their academic potential. We must nurture the whole student, not narrow the curriculum by imposing high stakes standardized testing that forces teaching to the test. Our curricula must include critical thinking, the arts and music, while encouraging creativity.

We must retain and attract quality teachers, a task made harder by Republican politicians who pass laws that take away teacher voice, increase high stakes standardized testing, and seek to dismantle the school employees’ pension system.

And while adequate funding may not be the whole answer, best practices such as smaller class sizes, intervention programs, high quality early childhood programs, strong special education programs, and fair compensation to retain and attract the best and the brightest, all cost money.

Have your eyes glazed over yet? A list of research-based best practices is a lot less catchy than a one size fits all theory like “choice,” which is probably why politicians, and those they are beholden to, have been able to take us so far down this path.

During the past 20 years, unbridled choice has destabilized public education and lowered academic performance. Charter schools are part of our education landscape, and I expect them to remain so, but we cannot have choice on steroids at the expense of education for all. Moving forward, let’s accept that insisting on “choice” as a catch-all policy prescription has not improved public education in Michigan and get back to the hard work of figuring out how to actually provide great public schools to all students.

David Hecker is president of the American Federation of Teachers in Michigan.

Fixing Michigan’s Schools

This is part of a series of editorials and commentaries this school year exploring ideas for improving our state’s schools. Follow along at detroitnews.com/opinion.