State Should Boost 'Parent Power'

The Center for Education Reform has released its 2013 "Parent Power Index," a survey that reviews how much access parents and students have to educational options in each state. Michigan, though receiving high marks for its charter public school policies, scored poorly in categories for teacher quality and online learning.

But most troubling is the Michigan's score of '0' for its school choice policies. Though charter schools provide some choice in Michigan, our state is the only state to have the distinction of constitutionally prohibiting any form of private school choice, including tax credits

Stay Engaged

Receive our weekly emails!

In this regard, Michigan lags far behind Indiana, Ohio, Arizona, Louisiana and Wisconsin. All five of those states have recently expanded their private school choice programs. Ohio expanded its voucher program this year. Now, Ohio students attending failing schools, along with low-income students and students with special needs, can attend schools that their parents believe will provide them with the best education

Wide-ranging choice programs like these are promising because they empower parents. With the expansion of choice, schools become accountable to parents and students: If students leave, schools will lose money. 

In comparison, some of Michigan's recent reform efforts fall flat. Since the state is handicapped by its prohibition against private school choice, state officials are enforcing accountability with unilateral state action and bureaucracy. There is no better illustration of this than the state's "Top-to-Bottom" ranking, a list that purports to measure the quality of all schools with a single — though complex — methodology.

This list is used to force schools to fire principals, trigger school reorganization, and could even force the closure of a school. Legislators have considered using the TTB list to identify schools for state takeover. Never mind the fact that some of the lowest-ranked schools on the TTB list have been recognized for their success by independent, third-party organizations.

Parental empowerment has the promise to transform education for the better. Parents see schools first-hand, and are able to discern whether a school is meeting their needs. This decentralized knowledge is what economist Frederick Hayek described as the "particular circumstances of time and place."

Hayek continues:

It is with respect to this that practically every individual has some advantage over all others because he posseses unique information of which beneficial use might be made, but of which use can be made only if the decisions depending on it are left to him or are made with his active cooperation.

In other words, no equation developed by state officials will ever be able to take into account what parents know about the quality, safety, organization and effectiveness of Michigan schools. And parents need to be free to make these decisions for their children in order to put this knowledge to its best use.

A centralized system of judging school quality will always overlook key aspects of certain schools or penalize schools for serving disadvantaged children. Empowering parents to enroll their students in the school of their choice would allow parents to make use of the specific details they know about each particular school their child attends.

Consider Ohio's model: Students in schools that receive low grades on the state's report card for two years become eligible for up to $5,000 to attend another school. Instead of unilaterally closing the school, Ohio empowers students and parents to leave — if they want to. If the state misidentifies a school as failing when it really is serving students well in the eyes of their parents, then students will continue to enroll. 

Such an accountability system allows the state to make use of the dispersed knowledge parents have to enforce school quality. And, such a system would minimize the risk that the state could shutter an effective school.

Parent power is more than just a buzz phrase. Wide-ranging choice would serve as a nuanced and effective accountability system, if state law would only allow it.