Far too often in Michigan’s education policy debates, the views of customers dissatisfied with locally assigned government schooling are left on the sidelines. We and our allies are beginning to change that.
As back-to-school time approached this year, the group Parent Advocates for Choice in Education launched, with support and direction from the Mackinac Center and other choice-friendly groups. The vision for PACE is to build a network of parents who are trained and motivated to speak out for the right to direct their children’s education and expand access to a variety of quality educational opportunities. The parents come from different types of school environments.
Many parents have stories to share about how the dominant industrial-style school district system has not worked for their children. Some have sought to transfer to a new district, a local charter school or an online education option. Those with the means and inclination have paid private school tuition or taken charge of educating their children at home. Even though Michigan is in a shrinking minority of states that offer no public support for private educational choice, the state’s share of students learning outside their locally assigned government school district is among the very highest.
During its first few months, PACE is focused on reaching and organizing parents in a small but diverse set of schools. These include a Catholic school in Wayne County, a nondenominational Christian school in Lansing, and charter schools in Grand Rapids and the Port Huron area. This initial phase culminates in a day at the Michigan Capitol for parents to meet and share their stories with legislators and to hear from a national speaker. We will use what we learn from these early efforts to shape our work to take the idea statewide.
The groups backing PACE operate under no illusion that building a grass roots army for parental choice will be easy. But the organization represents a crucial part of the larger work to defend and extend educational freedom in Michigan.
Many in Lansing’s elected class are captive to the interests either of education employee unions or organized school district leadership. A parent’s ability to choose different learning options often clashes with those interests. Relevant and compelling stories from supportive and motivated parents can help reshape policy debates.
Other states have attempted similar efforts, none with more success than Florida’s Parent Network. This group has brought together lower-income parents across the Sunshine State to support the Scholarship Tax Credit Program. The voices of thousands of parents — heard at rallies and legislative meetings, delivered through email messages and phone calls and online comments — have helped to blunt media attacks on choice, undermine lawsuits and swing elections.
With an extra boost of support and some committed leadership, Michigan can copy Florida’s success with a broader coalition of families who have benefited from educational choice.