Opinion: School choice keeps parents satisfied

Ben DeGrow

As a major part of the state budget, education can be a popular platform to campaign on. But candidates for governor should skip the rhetoric and listen more to parents, including those who have exercised school choice.

Tens of thousands of Michigan families have chosen public charter schools for their children. Their frustrations and challenges, dreams and aspirations all matter, and as a rule they know their children best. But they often get short shrift in public debates on education.

Many parents who have already found a better option are probably happy enough to be left alone, though they ought to be concerned about Gretchen Whitmer's antagonistic remarks that reveal how little she seems to understand about how charter schools actually work.

These alternatives to conventional districts were created, predominantly in lower-income urban communities, because parents were seeking something better. They continue strong today, serving a 10th of the state's public school students, because most parents are satisfied with them.

That's what the Mackinac Center's survey of more than 1,400 Michigan charter school parents found earlier this year. A full 85 percent assigned their child's new school an A or B grade, while 91 percent would recommend charters to other parents. And 60 percent agreed that access to a new educational opportunity has raised their expectations for their child's future achievements.

Policymakers need to realize that parental choice is driven by real and diverse needs. The most common answer parents gave, when asked why they pursued a charter option, was a desire for academic quality. The headlines about Michigan's low test scores are on to something.

Other answers, though, show that our state's policy discussions are not always geared toward all the concerns facing individual families. One in four parents noted that special learning needs weren't being met in their previous school, while more than one in five mentioned issues with bullying, lack of discipline or an unsafe environment.

While most charter school parents said they faced no significant hurdles in making the switch, some said they had a problem finding information about school quality. This suggests that efforts in Lansing and Detroit to educate families about how well charter and other public schools are doing may be on the right track.

Some surveyed parents said they didn't get into their first option. A small number planned to leave their charter school, either because they never planned for the switch to be permanent, or because they didn't find what they were looking for. In either case, providing these parents with more options might be part of the solution.

Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of Detroit Public Schools Community District, left, visits students at at Bagley Elementary School in Detroit in September.

Detroit residents, in particular, agree. In a Mackinac Center poll sampling 800 likely voters statewide, 58 percent of those in the Motor City said the state has too little choice. A more popular view in other parts of the state is that we have about the right amount of choice.

Regardless, throughout most of Michigan, most people recognize that choice does not hurt traditional public schools. This research-backed perspective stands solid and consistent, despite a constant stream of politically motivated attacks on choice and charter schools.

We need state leaders who will pay less heed to the misinformation and more attention to the many families for whom choice has made all the difference.

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