Bring Parental Choice to Detroit Public Schools

There's little left to argue; Detroit is home to the nation's worst school system. Having recently uncovered loads of corruption and facing bankruptcy, the district just scored historic lows on a national test. Time's up, Detroit Public Schools. Give the kids trapped in failed schools a chance. It's time to unleash the power of school choice.

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Not all schools in Detroit are failing, but it's hard to see a legitimate reason for defending the status quo - less than 5 percent of fourth- and eighth-graders were deemed proficient in math on the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress test. And while we might not be able to predict the exact impact that empowering parental choice would have, evidence suggests it would likely raise overall student achievement and reduce costs.

This summer, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan called Detroit: "New Orleans two years ago without Hurricane Katrina." If only it could be New Orleans now. Post-Katrina New Orleans rebuilt most of its school system on the charter public school model. Parents can now choose from any public school in the district, and this incentivizes all New Orleans schools to improve, since they are directly accountable to parents. The district improved its state test scores by 10 points since 2004.

New Orleans' success is not unique. Caroline Hoxby of Stanford University released a study in September detailing the achievement gains made by students in New York City charter schools. Students attending charter schools for eight years closed 86 percent of the historical math achievement gap with their suburban counterparts. Similarly, a recent study of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program that gives $7,500 scholarships to low-income students found noticeable growth in recipients' reading scores after only three years.

More school choice won't just improve student achievement; it can also help DPS as it teeters on the brink of bankruptcy. Like the rest of the state, charter public schools in Detroit cost less than conventional schools. Based solely on local and state revenues reported by the National Center for Education Statistics, Detroit charter schools in 2007 spent an average of $8,993 per pupil, while the conventional school average was $13,102 per pupil. If two-thirds of Detroit students were in charter schools, the district could save approximately $260 million. Two-thirds of Michigan charter schools have waiting lists already and excellent plans for new schools are just waiting to be executed.

School voucher and tax credits systems save even more money. The average tuition for a participating school in the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship is $6,600, while the D.C. district spends more than $25,000 per public school pupil. Arizona currently runs a limited tuition tax credit program that saves the state millions and has the potential to save billions if expanded.  Universal tuition tax credits create incentives for fiscal efficiencies in public education, and Detroit should take advantage of such a system.

If Detroit were to unleash school choice, there almost certainly would be charitable foundations and philanthropists interested in supporting this cause. Hundreds of millions of dollars have flowed into Detroit from philanthropic groups in the past to help students and reform schools. The vast majority of that money has gone for naught. Having been scarred in the past, philanthropic groups would be wise to only give to DPS if it makes a commitment to fundamentally revolutionize the district, and expanding school choice would send a signal that DPS was serious about improving student outcomes and becoming more fiscally responsible.  

Unfortunately, several special interest groups stand in the way. The Detroit Federation of Teachers maintains its stalwart opposition to any and all charter schools, and like all teachers unions, opposes any type of voucher or tax credit system. Detroit Board of Education members, who may have the most guilt on their hands for the abysmal failure of DPS, attack anyone or anything that threatens their power. The board recently sought legal action against Robert Bobb, the district's emergency financial manager, when he made a deal allowing private management organizations to run some failing schools.

Dismantling the power of the DFT and school board is essential to bring change to DPS.  They have fought bitterly to defend the current failing system, and it should be abundantly clear now that the system served them before it served the students. Giving parents the power to choose will make their interests, those most closely aligned with students' interests, the most powerful force in the district.

Keith Johnson, president of the DFT, said recently: "We must put in transformative, meaningful, substantive, educational, student-driven initiatives if we're going to improve the quality of education for Detroit Public Schools." Agreed. But a new teachers' contract or $500 million bond or tougher curriculum won't do the job. That's already been tried. Incentivizing schools to improve through parental choice will.


Michael Van Beek is director of education policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.