Forcing choice into the present system of public education inevitably holds choice hostage to the concerns of special interests. School officials are made responsible for creating the optimal conditions under which choice can function; choice therefore ends up being controlled, and cannot shift major decision-making power away from administrators, school boards and unions. Even choice experiments which empower principals and teachers to create new school conditions are rare.
Such a guarded view of choice is the norm: the existing paradigm of public education is rarely questioned, and Michigan's schools of choice mandate was ultimately too weak to force such questioning. Without a paradigm shift in what we, as a society, expect from public education, most administrators will continue to take a guarded view of choice. Change the incentive structure, however, and administrators, like anyone else, will respond constructively with a new paradigm.
If choice serves any purpose at all, it is to challenge the existing paradigm of public education which falsely supposes that one management team can be as responsive to a community's educational needs as can diverse managers competing with each other for student enrollment.
As a result, the Legislature and the Governor together must exert greater state leadership on behalf of school choice and a new paradigm of public education. While the provision of education is a local responsibility, the structure of the delivery system is the state's responsibility. The Legislature can act, consistent with the constitutional prerogative for the tradition of local control, to make greater choice a reality. This can be done while reducing mandates and interference, thereby providing local school officials greater autonomy and opportunity.
1. Replace Mandates with Incentives
If anything is clear from our survey of school districts, it is that mandates are not effective ways to advance policy goals. It is our reasoned conclusion that, even if the legislation mandating choice contained a clear definition of choice and more specific guidelines for implementation, it would have still failed to accomplish its goal. If anything, it may have drawn even greater hostility from district administrators.
School districts must have a reason to change. It is clear that, left to themselves, the great majority of districts will not encourage enough innovation to make schools of choice feasible in the first place.
The most important incentive that we recommend is to base state funding on a per pupil basis tied directly to the enrollment decisions of the parents and students. In other words, establish the policy that state aid follows students to the schools of their parents' choice, including schools in neighboring districts. This reform would create an immediate incentive for districts to implement schools of choice to the degree that parents demanded change. Moreover, once parents know that state aid flows only to the schools they choose, they will likely demand much greater change and choice as a result.
Second, we recommend that the Legislature expand the definition of a public school to include new school sponsors. In effect, authorize school boards to charter new school entities in order to diversify the district's offerings and maximize the range of choices available to parents. Teachers and others could petition school boards to create new schools or new programs. A provision allowing rejected charter applicants to apply directly to the state should be included as well. The broader the charter authorization, the greater the diversity of school programs that will result. The state's program to assist university-sponsored charter schools is a small step in the right direction, but needs to be expanded dramatically.
Third, we recommend that the Article 8, Section ? of the Michigan Constitution be repealed in whole or altered in part to allow parents to choose – with public resources – any private school which meets sufficient educational standards. Recognition of the contribution which the private sector could bring to K-12 education, as it does to all other areas of public service, is long overdue. Such recognition would encourage a host of new organizations to sponsor schools and create the genuine diversity necessary for choice.
2. Provide Districts Necessary Flexibility
Many structural barriers exist to diversifying school programs. Perhaps none is more obvious than the requirement that all school employees be subject to one single agency for collective bargaining. As a result of this statute alone, school districts (in particular, school board members and superintendents) are held hostage to a bargaining process that promotes rigid personnel compensation policies and work rules for school employees. No single policy alone contributes more to the standardization of schools. Were school boards able to negotiate contracts with separate bargaining units representing one or more schools, diversity and competition would surely result.
We therefore recommend amending the Collective Bargaining section of the School Code to authorize individual bargaining units within school districts.
Further flexibility could be afforded by providing regulatory waivers to schools of choice. While it is not within the scope of this report to review structural barriers to Choice within the School Code itself, there are surely many that could be identified. We recommend that the Legislature create a commission to review the School Code for impediments to choice and to recommend specific measures for regulatory relief.
In the meantime, the state superintendent and/or State Board of Education could review waiver requests from individual districts on a case-by-case basis.
3. Assure the Quality and Availability of Consumer Information.
A critical but often overlooked factor in the efficacy of choice programs is the quality of information provided to parents. Parents need more than just program information about schools; they need performance-based information about individual schools and, to the extent feasible, individual teachers. In most cases, individual school districts cannot be trusted to provide objective performance data, however. The state may need to assume this duty itself for the time being, although legislators should consider seriously the possibility of contracting with private testing agencies.
Many educators and scholars fear that poorly implemented performance indicators could ultimately be worse than no indicators at all. Despite inherent limitations in standardized student testing as the base of a system of educational performance assessment, no obvious substitute exists to give parents some basis by which to compare school quality. The key may be to evaluate school performance using a value-added indicator because it measures only the distinct contribution of schools to growth in student achievement.
We recommend that future schools of choice plans include a school performance indicator system which utilizes value-added indicators where possible. Testing programs must be expanded and improved, and serious consideration should be given to testing students at every grade level upon entry and exit. A school performance indicator system must be accessible to parents at the district level in an easily understandable format.