Practical, Moral Arguments Bolster School Choice Advocates

Even after losing an intense, months-long legislative battle to create a Detroit Education Commission that would tighten the reins on charter school options, opponents of parental choice haven’t relented. Supporters of choice need to stay engaged and not let down their guard. 

The Legislature, on June 8, 2016, approved a Detroit schools bailout and reform package that excluded the charter-rationing commission. Within a couple weeks of that major victory for choice, other hits came. A new academic study sought to lay much of the blame for some school districts’ financial woes on the state’s choice laws. Michigan State University Professor David Arsen made a case that charters and cross-district options “powerfully exacerbate the financial pressures of declining-enrollment districts.” 

Yet the same week Arsen began to tout his findings, which covered data through 2012, Michigan officials released their updated school district fiscal watch list. The number of districts in deficit dropped from 41 to 23, with 16 of the 23 making progress toward getting out of the hole. One of the seven losing ground was Detroit, which was on the verge of a legislative bailout and restructuring. Highlighting this reversal formed a key part of the Mackinac Center’s response to Arsen’s critique.

The updated watch list challenged Arsen’s research findings. More districts are improving their financial bottom line even as statewide enrollment continues to slip and choice grows in popularity. Nearly one-quarter of Michigan public school students last year enrolled either in a charter school or in a district outside their residential one through the state’s 20-year-old Schools of Choice program.

As Arsen’s claims about choice and district fiscal health lost some luster, a Bridge Magazine series took a new, sensational turn. The reporting alleged that the Schools of Choice program has created a new trend of white flight and segregation.

In response, my Detroit News op-ed examined the reporting by using rigorous research from Michigan and other states and found it wanting. But it also delivered a potent point: Rolling back choice to assign students to schools strictly by home address won’t increase racial integration.

But neither the Arsen study nor Bridge's reporting could match the latest torrent of vitriol. The pre-Thanksgiving Day announcement that a champion for choice from our state, Betsy DeVos, had been nominated to serve as U.S. secretary of education unleashed a new barrage of criticism. Much mainstream media attention veered toward critiques of educational choice and charters in Michigan, and Detroit in particular, as a means of discrediting DeVos’ high-profile advocacy work.

Article after article mischaracterized our state’s choice policies, their results or both. Journalists used the phrase “Wild West” so often to describe the Motor City’s charter landscape that it became clichéd. But we and our allies have shown how that description misses the mark. Charters face real and growing oversight, plus tougher accountability than their district counterparts. More than 20 underperforming Detroit charters have closed since 2010, while traditional schools have been immune from the ultimate sanction.

The best available evidence we have on school performance is inconvenient to those who wish to discredit Michigan’s policies. Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that attending a Michigan (or more specifically, a Detroit) charter increases student learning by two to three months each year. About half of Michigan charters have significantly better results than district schools, while only 5 percent produce worse outcomes. CREDO labeled Detroit’s charter sector as one of four “essential examples of school-level and system-level commitments to quality.”

Even as we tout new evidence about the effectiveness of educational choice to defend existing policies and advocate ways to strengthen them, we also need to emphasize the underlying moral argument. The Fordham Foundation’s Robert Pondiscio eloquently made the point in a recent U.S. News column. He asked, “Why deny low-income families the ability to do exactly what affluent parents have long done: to choose schools not on ‘evidence’ but on personal prerogative?”

Let’s not lose sight of this penetrating point as we continue working to empower more Michigan parents and open the doors of opportunity for more Michigan students.