'We’re Number 10' in School Choice

Could be better for Detroit students

The “fix Detroit schools” discussion ought to begin and end with what best serves students and their families, rather than what serves school administrators, unions or any other interest group. A new report from a respected education reform group describes one feature that should be at the forefront of this conversation.

Earlier this month, the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation released its findings from a careful examination of 30 big city school systems in a report called “America’s best (and worst) cities for school choice.” The authors asked which cities are most open to giving families access to options beyond conventional public school districts, rather than locking them in to stale bureaucratic models from a past era.

Detroit ranked the 10th-best school choice city out of the 30 surveyed. This actually set a very low bar: Ranking higher than school systems like those in Pittsburgh, Nashville, or Minneapolis is okay but not much to boast about.

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A recent major analysis by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) found Detroit charter students gain an extra 70 days of learning each year in math and reading. Nearly all high-quality research into school choice, including the recent report from CREDO, shows it has positive results for student achievement or attainment, including both participating students and their peers who don’t exercise choice but experience the benefits of the rising tide.

Unfortunately, Detroit’s recent educational hallmarks have been free-falling enrollment, abysmal test scores, and far too many students unprepared to succeed. Giving parents more freedom to choose a school that best serves their children is one of the key principles that have been identified to guide the next steps in fixing or replacing a broken institution.

Fordham observes that school choice in Detroit is hamstrung by weak backing from local school and city officials. On the other hand, the district gets partial credit in the category of political support for the governor mentioning school choice in his state of the state speech.

Also on the positive side, the state charter school law was reformed in 2011 to eliminate an artificial cap on the number of charters. But there is still clearly room for improvement.

In 2014, the University of Arkansas found that Michigan charter schools get a bigger student achievement bang for the buck than their district-run counterparts. Michigan has made progress in closing a funding gap charters face, but they still get less than conventional public school districts.

The unfavorable treatment of charter schools isn’t a simple matter of them getting less money; it’s how public money is spent. For example, students can’t benefit from having access to a better school if they can’t get to it. Fordham gives Detroit demerits for failing to provide transportation to charter students on the same terms as conventional school district students. Michigan law does not provide for charter school bus service.

Detroit also is marked down for lacking a common school application process. However, such systems are only beneficial if they are designed to empower parents — not bureaucrats — as the primary decision-makers.

Fordham’s rankings give the most weight to the quantity and quality of available choices. Detroit gains points with a 54 percent market share for charter schools, the nation’s second-highest. At least on paper, Detroit families also have the right under a state policy known as schools of choice to send their children to schools in neighboring districts. The catch is, not all those districts have or are willing to create the extra capacity.

Finally, the report credits Detroit for having home school and private school options available. Yet the children most in need of these alternative learning environments overwhelmingly come from families that lack the means to access them.

When it comes to school choice, Detroit may look good compared to other big cities. But for a city trying to get back on its feet and many students desperately seeking a path to success in life, 10th place isn’t good enough.

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