On December 20, 2011, Gov. Rick Snyder signed into law a bill to expand and then eliminate the arbitrary cap on the number of charter public schools that can operate in the state. The Mackinac Center has been a longtime proponent of greater parental choice in public schooling, and this is an important victory for Michigan families.
The Mackinac Center introduced the state to the concept of charter schools in the late 1980s. Back then, the idea of parents having a choice to enroll their kids in schools outside the direct control of government was revolutionary. Today, it’s commonplace. There are about 250 charter schools in Michigan, enrolling a total of about 120,000 students. Plus, there’s a waiting list of 20,000 hoping to access these schools.
The late Joe Overton, former vice president at the Mackinac Center, succinctly stated the rationale behind this form of school choice: “When the Mackinac Center for Public Policy introduced the concept of charter schools to Michigan in 1988, one of the main purposes was to allow these schools to operate relatively free of the crushing bureaucracy that is killing public education today, and which robs teachers and administrators of the joy and professionalism of their important work.”
Other advantages of public charters are that they incentivize schools to improve through market competition, and provide parents with additional options other than the school assigned to their children by state government. With an effective cap on the charters, however, both of these goals were severely suppressed.
Ultimately, the debate about charter schools came down to one question: Should parents or politicians decide which schools are good enough for children? Following the underlying moral case for freedom of choice and consumer sovereignty, Center analysts over the years consistently made the case that parents should be free to make that decision.
These intellectual arguments, advanced in studies, commentaries, videos and speeches over 20 years helped foster public opinion in a manner that made removing the charter school cap possible. When it came time to sign the legislation, Gov. Snyder’s invited Michael Van Beek, the Center’s director of education policy, to the signing ceremony. At the event, Van Beek was thanked personally by the chairs of the House and Senate education committees for his work in helping build the case for eliminating arbitrary limits on charter schools.
Helping to expand thousands of families’ educational possibilities is a major accomplishment, but we’re not resting on our laurels. Matthew Brouillette, a former Center employee and current president of a sister think tank in Pennsylvania, reminds us why with this observation penned in 1998: “Charter schools are a step toward freedom of choice in education, but only full and fair choice among diverse government and nongovernment schools will ensure that parents have a vibrant array of options.”