Nearly One in Four Public School Students Exercises School Choice

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The results of a new poll from Education Next briefly caused my heart to sink. In one year, support for charter schools dropped by 12 points, to 39 percent. Opposition to them rose from 28 to 36 percent. Clearly, public opinion appears to have turned and is now closely divided.

Unfortunately, the result is not easily dismissed. Education Next is a well-respected publication and one sympathetic to reform. The survey reached thousands of Americans, yielding a tiny margin of error. The question had the same precise wording for the 10th straight year, and favorability to charter schools reached an all-time low.

Opinions on private school choice initiatives, meanwhile, bucked the trend and provided a brilliant silver lining. Public opposition to tuition tax credits and vouchers fell nearly as much as opposition to charters grew.

But that good news hardly eliminates dangers for charters, which stand on the front lines of Michigan’s school choice political debate. Since the 1990s, state dollars have followed students who enroll in public schools outside their assigned district school, whether in a charter school or in another district that receives students through Schools of Choice.

The share of families exercising their educational choices grew to reach 23 percent of all public school students last year. Researchers can tell us that families who use one of these options are more likely to be nonwhite and poorer than the average family. They also can tell us that attending charter schools provides a small but clear benefit to students, while Schools of Choice offers no real measurable academic benefit.

But until now, we have known very little about why these parents exercise choice, or how satisfied they are with the experience. Earlier this year the Mackinac Center commissioned a survey of more than 800 parents across Michigan whose children either attend a public charter school or participate in Schools of Choice. When these parents speak, their answers offer a compelling contrast to the skepticism expressed about charters found in the Education Next poll results.

Our survey measured parent satisfaction in three different ways. First, 80 percent of the Michigan choice parents rated their chosen school an A or B. Second, by a four-to-one ratio, they would recommend the school choice experience to others.

Most importantly, though, 65 percent said using school choice has made them more optimistic about their own child’s educational success. African-American and low-income parents responded positively at even higher rates. Only a handful of parents said they had lower expectations.

Our survey also helped us learn more about what parents look for when they choose and what shapes their decisions. Two-thirds cited academic reasons as the driving factor, though they didn’t necessarily rely on standardized test scores. Three of every 10 parents choose based on “academic performance or test scores,” but even more sought a different type of educational philosophy or program. Small but significant shares of respondents were guided by concerns about smaller class sizes or issues related to safety and discipline.

Perhaps not surprisingly, when asked what source of information most influenced their decision, parents most commonly said conversations with other parents (31 percent). Others pointed to websites with academic performance data or their own visits to a school.

In response to August’s Education Next survey, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools rightly observed: “The opinions about charter schools that matter most are the opinions of parents and students who have chosen charters schools.” In Michigan, that observation applies to everyone who exercises public school choice.

While opponents of school choice may make hay out of the Education Next survey, the views of Michigan parents who have exercised educational choice ought to leave a deeper, more lasting impression.