2. Public School Choice and Virtual Schooling

Michigan should eliminate remaining barriers to public school choice, making it easier for parents to choose the learning opportunities that will best suit their children. Like private school choice, public school choice has a widespread impact by allowing individual parents to demand new levels of accountability from all public schools.

Michigan does enable parents to choose from a number of conventional public school options. Since 1991, state law has encouraged districts to enable parents to choose the school their child attends within their resident district.[44] Beginning in 1996, parents also had a limited ability to enroll their children in a nearby public school outside their district of residence (though district school boards can still reject nonresident students or limit the number of nonresidents their district schools accept).[*] In this case, Michigan resembles Florida in that both states have implemented fairly extensive parental choice systems for conventional public schools.

And like Florida, Michigan allows charter schools to operate in the state. About 8 percent of public school students in Michigan enrolled in a charter school in 2012.[45] Enrollment in these schools is up 285 percent since 1999, from 31,109 to 119,900 in 2012.[46]

Unlike Florida, however, the Great Lakes State for years effectively limited charter schooling by capping the number of charter schools that could be authorized by public universities at 150.[†] This limit was reached in 1999.[47] Consequently, while the number of charter schools in the Sunshine State grew by 240 percent, from 148 in 2001 to 503 in 2011, the number in Michigan grew by just 46 percent, from 205 in 2001 to 300 in 2011.[48]

Following the passage of legislation in late 2011, Michigan’s cap on the number of university-authorized charter schools is scheduled to end in 2015.[‡] Removing the cap is a sound decision. Research has shown that charter school students in Michigan have made demonstrable gains in student achievement.[49] It should also be noted that charter schools were adopted early in Florida.

One area of distinct difference between Michigan and Florida is in the availability of online schooling options. Admittedly, the effectiveness of online schooling in primary and secondary education has not been rigorously studied (though some studies do exist).[50] Nevertheless, the argument for adopting Florida’s virtual learning reforms in Michigan is strong.

Florida began its foray into virtual learning early, starting in the mid-1990s and rapidly blossoming into a national leader. Moreover, the potential impact of online schooling is broad: When barriers to virtual schooling are removed, students can access online courses from virtually anywhere using an increasing variety of devices with an Internet connection. The ease of taking and switching courses among a wide variety of public and private providers also creates a competitive pressure that will tend to improve the quantity and quality of courses over time.

Michigan already has a statewide virtual school — Michigan Virtual School — but its enrollment levels pale in comparison to Florida’s. In the 2010-2011 school year, Florida Virtual School had nearly 260,000 course-enrollments, while Michigan Virtual School had 17,700.[51] The number of online learning opportunities for students is growing in Michigan, but unlike Florida, Michigan does not require school districts to make these opportunities available to students. Instead, Michigan’s local school boards decide how much access students will have to online instruction.[52]

Additionally, “seat-time”-based pupil accounting requirements deter many Michigan districts from expanding their online programs. As the author has argued elsewhere,[53] the Legislature should abolish this seat-time mandate.

The Legislature should also remove all geographically based barriers to a district’s receiving state aid on behalf of nonresident students — a particularly helpful reform for districts hoping to expand their online learning programs. The cap on the number of online charter schools and the number of students who can enroll in these schools should be removed as well.[54]

[*] Ibid. This “interdistrict” choice was limited by only allowing parents to choose to enroll their children in a school district within the geographical boundaries of their resident Intermediate School District. In 1999, this program was expanded to enable parents to choose a school in a district within a contiguous ISD to their own. Matthew Brouillette, “Schools-of-Choice Law Broadened,” (Michigan Education Report, 1999), http://goo.gl/nXyhY (accessed May 31, 2013).

[†] Charter schools in Michigan can also be authorized by public school districts, intermediate school districts and community colleges. Public universities, however, have historically been the most active authorizers of charter schools.

[‡] MCL § 380.502(2)(d). Under Michigan’s new law passed in 2011, the limit on the number of charter schools authorized by public universities will increase to 300 for the 2012-2013 school year, 500 for the 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 school years, and then be completely eliminated starting with the 2015-2016 school year. “Understanding Michigan’s New Charter Law,” (The Center for Charter Schools at Central Michigan University, 2012), http://goo.gl/rU1l6 (accessed May 31, 2013).

[44] Matthew Brouillette, “School Choice in Michigan: A Primer for Freedom in Education,” (Mackinac Center for Public Policy, 1999), 32, http://goo.gl/PFhDk (accessed May 31, 2013).

[45] “Pupil Membership History, FY 1994-95 to FY 2014-2015,” (Michigan Senate Fiscal Agency, 2013), http://goo.gl/xOCx3 (accessed March 20, 2013).

[46] “Pupil Membership History, FY 1994-95 to FY 2014-2015,” (Michigan Senate Fiscal Agency, 2013), http://goo.gl/xOCx3 (accessed March 20, 2013).

[47] “New charter plan expected,” (Michigan Education Report, 2002), http://goo.gl/vBsEg (accessed May 31, 2013).

[48] Author calculations based on “Common Core of Data,” (National Center for Education Statistics; United States Department of Education), http://nces.ed.gov/ccd/ (accessed May 31, 2013).

[49] “Charter School Performance in Michigan,” (Center for Research on Education Outcomes; Stanford University, 2013), http://goo.gl/ jCFOM (accessed April 2, 2013); Liyang Mao and Bettie Landauer-Menchik, “A Comparison of Michigan’s Charter School Authorizers,” (Education Policy Center; Michigan State University, 2013), http://goo.gl/ZlUvL (accessed April 2, 2013).

[50] Michael Van Beek, “Virtual Learning in Michigan’s Schools,” (Mackinac Center for Public Policy, 2011), 2-9, http://goo.gl/ZZe3u (accessed May 31, 2013).

[51] Watson et al., “Keeping Pace With K-12 Online Learning,” (Evergreen Education Group, 2011), 30, http://goo.gl/KI2QB (accessed May 31, 2013).

[52] “Pupil Accounting Manual: 5-O-A - Virtual Learning, Distance Learning, and Independent Study,” (Michigan Department of Education, 2010), http://goo.gl/KpxWM (accessed May 16, 2013).

[53] Van Beek, “Virtual Learning in Michigan’s Schools,” (Mackinac Center for Public Policy, 2011), 18 21, http://goo.gl/ZZe3u (accessed May 31, 2013).

[54] Ibid., 21-22.