Executive Summary

"Public education is a monopoly, and monopolies don't work."

With these words, spoken before a 1993 joint session of the Michigan Legislature, Gov. John Engler signaled his support for the innovative concept of charter schools and shortly thereafter, Michigan became the fourth state to adopt a charter school law. Today, nearly 50,000 children—or three percent of the public school student population—are in more than 170 charter schools across the state.

Charter schools are government-funded schools that operate under performance-based contracts with state universities, local school districts, intermediate school districts, or community colleges. They came on the Michigan scene when state lawmakers passed, and Gov. Engler signed, legislation to introduce limited competition and parental choice into Michigan's public school system.

In 1996, the Michigan Legislature gave parents and students an even greater range of choices within the public school system through the "schools-of-choice" program, which allows children to attend other public schools in their own and neighboring districts. Although fewer than 18,000 students were able to take advantage of this opportunity in 1999-2000, it is offering families some additional educational options for their children.

This report seeks to ascertain whether increased competition among Michigan public schools has improved educational opportunities for children, and whether competition encourages or discourages schools to respond to the needs and demands of students and parents. The research presented relies upon information from the Wayne County Regional Educational Service Agency—the intermediate school district of Wayne County—and data provided in state-generated publications. Because empirical data do not and cannot demonstrate the "attitudinal" shift that competition has created in the public school system, anecdotal data also were gathered through interviews with district superintendents and charter school principals to illustrate, confirm, or test contentions made about choice programs.

The evidence suggests that those who seek to improve education for Michigan children should embrace competition among schools, rather than fear it. Competition has provided a powerful incentive for improvement while expanding the ability of parents to choose the school that best meets the needs of their children. Contrary to the claims of those who oppose competition in education, there is very little evidence to suggest that competition has harmed the cause of better education for Michigan children.

While neither the charter schools nor public "schools-of-choice" take fullest possible advantage of the opportunities for improvement offered by competition, they are having a substantial impact on the public school system. As former Highland Park Superintendent John Stendt stated, "Competition has forced us to be more consumer-oriented."

Charter schools and public "schools-of-choice" are beginning to replace the "assignment system"—whereby children are assigned to a particular government school based on where they live—with school choice, where parents have the right, freedom, and ability to choose the safest and best schools for their children.

Charter schools and "schools-of-choice" programs represent "incentive-based" education reform. Previous reforms relied on either rules- or resource-based efforts, such as new mandates or increased funding. Instead of repeating failed attempts to reform education through new rules or additional resources, charter schools and public "schools-of-choice" introduce a market-oriented incentive—competition—to encourage traditional public schools to improve.

The report notes how, for districts such as Dearborn and Inkster, competition has convinced school officials that making parents happy is not just good public relations anymore; it means survival and prosperity.

The debate over how best to improve education for Michigan children should include discussion of the results that current, limited competition has produced thus far in Michigan. Three previous studies of charter schools and public "schools-of-choice" in Michigan have concluded that the incentives of competition have had an overall beneficial effect on public education. One researcher exclaimed, "The debate over whether to have more choice in the public schools in this country is essentially over. The positive parts of choice are just too powerful."

The report concludes with recommendations for expanding parental choice in education and thereby increasing the positive impact competition is having on Michigan public schools. Lifting the legislatively imposed cap on the number of university-authorized charter schools in the state would provide more Michigan families with greater opportunities within the public system, while expanding the public "schools-of-choice" program to include all schools also will create greater educational opportunities for children. Policy-makers also should work to repeal or reform many of the onerous statutes and regulations that unfairly hamper public schools trying to compete in a new environment of school choice. Finally, Michiganians should eliminate discriminatory language from the state constitution that in effect financially penalizes parents who choose private schools for their children.