Mackinac Center Town Hall  - click to enlarge

The Mackinac Center recently conducted a large experiment: How many new people in Michigan could we reach with a live event by doing things differently? In a world of increasingly quick technological advances, it can be a struggle for nonprofits to keep up. We typically hold live, classroom-style events to feature leading researchers on important topics of public policy. These events can attract as many as 70 attendees — no small feat.

In March, the Mackinac Center had the opportunity to host a panel discussion with Dr. Michael McShane, research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and Bruce Braun, representing Michigan Lutheran Schools, to discuss the future of private school choice in Michigan. This issue, we suspected, would be interesting to many people throughout Michigan.

Instead of hosting a typical live event, we chose to host a “telephone town hall.” On the evening of the panel discussion, the Mackinac Center used a service to call thousands of Michigan residents, and extend an invitation to stay on the line to hear more about private school choice policies.

Incredibly, more than 3,000 individuals stayed on to hear a portion of the talk. Approximately 250 people — our largest live audience to date — listened to the panel discussion in almost its entirety. That evening, our panelists spoke to three different audiences: Our telephone town hall audience, a live audience, and people watching the event on the web.

During the discussion, Dr. McShane spoke about policies that would allow high-performing schools to expand quickly, and to ease restrictions on schools that commit to achieving high levels of academic performance. These types of policies, he argued, would make good schools available to students more quickly, while weeding out schools that fail to serve their students. Bruce Braun spoke about the role he sees for Michigan nonpublic schools. Both McShane and Braun answered audience questions, with a focus on whether private school choice is even possible in this state.

The fact is, Michigan’s Constitution prohibits public funding for nonpublic schools. However, 77 percent of telephone town hall participants said they favored private school choice. Their support fits with larger polls of public opinion on school choice. In the summer of 2014, the Mackinac Center surveyed 800 Michigan residents, and found that 67 percent said they would favor a tax credit scholarship that allowed all students, regardless of income or need, to attend the school of their choice.

We hope to engage more Michigan residents on important issues of public policy, and will likely hold another telephone town hall in the future. With this new tool, the Mackinac Center can connect with more people who care about public policy throughout the state of Michigan.