Back to the Drawing Board for Schools-of-Choice

Like some of NASA's best-laid plans, Michigan's "schools-of-choice" experiment appears to be stalled in pre-launch phase, the victim of shoddy design and poor execution.

What once offered the hope of dramatic reform has now become another burdensome state mandate to local school officials, evoking half-hearted efforts at compliance and sincere efforts at damage control. If the Legislature wants to salvage this program, it must go back to the drawing board and start anew.

As the result of legislation passed last October, each of Michigan's school districts was required by April 1 to develop an intra-district "schools-of-choice" plan, subject to parental input, or lose state funding. School districts must implement the plan in the new school year unless voters decide otherwise.

Faced with the loss of state funds, or having to explain to voters why they oppose choice, most school boards and administrators predictably have chosen the least disruptive course, that is, simply to affirm the current practice which already allows parents to transfer their children to different schools within the district on a space-available basis.

The hitch here, of course, is "on a space-available basis". With some notable exceptions such as Detroit, most school buildings are already filled to capacity. As a result, few spaces are available for parents wishing to exercise choice.

Several other factors mitigate against choice: Many school districts are too small to have more than one or several schools per grade, especially at the middle and high school levels. Even in larger districts there is little difference between schools other than personalities, so choice is almost irrelevant. As a result, "schools-of-choice" appears to be nothing more than an exercise in futility.

Is this what the Legislature had in mind last October? Far from it. Advocates of public school choice believed that choice could harness the discipline of market-based competition to drive school improvement. Even imperfect competition often leads to higher quality and lower prices. It can also serve much more effectively than regulation as a means of consumer protection. Unfortunately, the legislature left the market out of the plan.

Several important lessons can be learned from this exercise. First, left to themselves, most public school districts do not have sufficient incentive to expand parental choice options beyond what is presently available. For most school board members and administrators, choice is simply too disruptive. Therefore, true choice can come about only if parents are empowered with some of the resources now controlled exclusively by school officials. That suggests a change in Michigan's constitution to allow a program under which tax dollars would follow the pupil to the school chosen by the parents.

Second, school districts are too encumbered by governmental and contractual regulations to diversify their product offerings. Unless school administrators are liberated from excessive red tape by legislators, bureaucrats and unions, it is unreasonable to expect much in the way of change. For this reason, some states are beginning to offer waivers from regulations to schools that meet performance-based outcome norms.

Third, and most importantly, competition cannot exist unless new suppliers are free to enter the market for educational services. One option currently under consideration is to "charter" new schools into the public system. But, unless "charter" schools enjoy reasonable autonomy, increased supply will not translate into "more and better choice."

Educational choice can work to improve school performance, but it must first be allowed to work. It's time to go back to the drawing board with some important lessons learned.