Improving access to better educational options for Michigan families first requires understanding what options are currently available. The state’s landscape of educational choice highlights why Student Mobility Scholarships could be especially beneficial and effective. The most common method for exercising public school choice is residential mobility. Families with the financial means to do so purchase or rent housing in school districts they believe offer their children better educational opportunities. Historically, families without the means to do likewise did not have any public school options.
Since 1994, Michigan has opened doors to other forms of public school choice. Today nearly 300 public charter schools serve roughly 150,000 students. These independently governed and often specialized schools operate strictly on the basis of parental choice. No students are assigned to these schools. Families must actively seek out and sign up to enroll. Demand for public education alternatives is greater in lower-income communities, where school districts appear less likely to adequately meet students' learning needs or live up to parents' expectations. Statewide, three out of four charter students are considered economically disadvantaged, compared to less than half of their peers in district schools.
Within prescribed limits, Schools of Choice and similar programs further expand educational options for Michigan parents. SOC enables parents to enroll their children in a school in a neighboring district, so long as that neighboring district accepts nonresident students. Most districts participate and enroll students from outside their geographical territory, but there is wide variation among districts in the number of nonresident students they admit.[*] In 2019, more than 193,000 Michigan students attended a public school in a conventional district outside of the one where they live. Students who cross district lines to attend school tend to be lower-income and lower-performing on state achievement tests than the typical public school student in Michigan.
Still, surveys of Michigan families who exercise choice have demonstrated that the motivation to access educational options crosses income and geographical lines. Some are motivated by concerns for their child’s safety, such as being a victim of bullying or lack of discipline from school leaders. Others seek out certain types of academic programming that they feel serves their children best, while others desire smaller, more intimate schooling environments, such as those offered by independent, single-site charter schools.[†] Some may be attracted to newer models of education, like cyber schools, a type of charter school that delivers most or all of its instruction online. In all, nearly a quarter of Michigan's 1.4 million K-12 students attend a charter school or use some form of interdistrict educational choice.
Unlike parents in dozens of other states, Michiganders cannot make use of public funds to enroll in any type of school except a legally defined public school. A 1970 voter-approved initiative amended Michigan’s constitution to prohibit the use of state or local tax funds “directly or indirectly to aid or maintain any private, denominational or other nonpublic, pre-elementary, elementary, or secondary school.” Nevertheless, even without public tuition support, about 112,000 students attended Michigan private schools in 2017, according to the Michigan Department of Education.
[*] For example, some districts accept only a handful of nonresident students, while several districts enroll more nonresidents than students who live within their boundaries. See: Julie Mack, “The 54 Michigan Districts with Biggest Enrollment Gains from School Choice” (MLive.com, Sept. 3, 2018), https://perma.cc/E9HK-RNMW. Based on a 2017 survey, about one-third of the surveyed districts set no limits on how many nonresident students they would enroll, but other districts limit nonresident enrollment to a single program or grade level. Ben DeGrow, “A Survey of Michigan Parents Who Use School Choice” (Mackinac Center for Public Policy, Sept. 17, 2017), 3–4, https://perma.cc/DFV3-M3DF.
[†] One in five Michigan charter school parents cited bullying or safety concerns as a primary motivation for leaving their assigned district school. “Choices & Voices” (Mackinac Center for Public Policy, Sept. 6, 2018), 7–8, https://perma.cc/GEN8-W3UJ.