The Kalamazoo Promise vs. School Choice

The Kalamazoo Gazette's Julie Mack recently praised the privately funded "Kalamazoo Promise" college scholarship program and questioned the priorities of Grand Rapids-based philanthropists who support charter schools and vouchers. She claimed that while parental choice programs serve less than 5 percent of students, "The Promise taps into the power of public schools."

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Mack's criticism would make more sense if it were directed at the lawmakers and special interests responsible for marginalizing school choice programs. For example, the Michigan Legislature has arbitrarily capped at 150 the number of charter schools authorized by universities. Elsewhere, every voucher program in the nation is restricted to narrow groups of students or limited in some other way.

For example, Milwaukee has the nation's largest voucher program, but it's still capped at just 22,500 students, or about one-quarter of the district's total. Even with this limitation, however, studies have shown that the program raised the level of achievement of students in conventional schools and generated higher graduation rates. Participating private schools are safer, less racially segregated and cost taxpayers half as much as the conventional schools in Milwaukee.

Perhaps if Michigan were to shut down the corrupt Detroit public school system and replace it with independently operated charter schools we would finally discover what "transformational reform" really looks like.

Mack is also mistaken in characterizing charters schools as not a part of "public education." Charters are funded by taxpayers, use only state-certified teachers, comply with a host of government regulations and open their doors to any and all who apply (except, of course, when those artificial constraints mean there's not enough room). They are public schools by any meaningful definition.

Furthermore, Mack assumes that Grand Rapids philanthropists have limited their charity to charter schools. However, according to the Michigan Department of Education, conventional schools in Kent County received more private funding than its charters — $3.97 million versus $1.17 million in 2009.

None of this is to take anything away from "The Kalamazoo Promise." It's a fine example of power of private philanthropy. The program is too young yet, though, to determine if it will truly be "transformational" for the Kalamazoo community and its students.

Charter schools and vouchers are among many experiments in how to improve schools, meet parents' demands and enhance educational outcomes for students. If they've failed so far to do this on a grand scale, it's because their scope has been restricted by competing special interests. 

Unlike "The Kalamazoo Promise," however, neither of these innovations depends on the presence and generosity of a one or a handful of millionaires, which means they are much more broadly applicable (that is, if they're allowed to be).

Mack's public admiration of the Promise is appropriate, but she should also be willing to let 100 flowers bloom elsewhere without criticizing their supporters, or insinuating that they are motivated by any other "agenda" than improving the lives of all the community's children.