Most Michigan Parents Satisfied with School Choice

Superintendent Whiston backtracks from 'backwards' claim

Brian Whiston

The Michigan Department of Education’s chief quickly backtracked from an unsupportable misstatement about school choice, a misstatement that neglected the popularity of choice among families who use it.

Appearing Sept. 8 on Lansing public television’s “Off the Record,” State Superintendent Brian Whiston responded to a reporter’s question about what has caused Michigan’s long-term decline in educational achievement. “I think the focus over the past 20-25 years has been choice, inter-district choice, there’s been charter choice. While I do support choice, and I want to be clear on that, it hasn’t led – it’s probably taken us backwards overall,” he asserted.

It took just a few days for the state superintendent to backtrack from the remark: “I do not think that choice – as defined by multiple pathways within a district; outside district choices; and charter schools – has set us back. In fact, I say it is an important part of our education system and I support these choices – my record is clear on that.”

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As I stated in an MLive article, Whiston’s quick and precise apology owed something to the positive experience thousands of Michigan families have had with the public school choices currently available to them. A growing share of Michigan public school students – nearly one in four statewide – are enrolled in options outside their assigned district.

The day after the state superintendent’s follow-up remarks, the Mackinac Center released our new survey of 837 parents across Michigan who use school choice, enrolling either in a charter school or in a traditional district outside where they live. The racially and socioeconomically diverse group of moms and dads agreed on at least one key point: They are satisfied with the experience.

Four out of five respondents assigned their new school either an A or B grade, a higher rate than national surveys of the general public school parent population. And by a nearly four-to-one ratio, the group of parents would recommend choice to others.

Most powerfully, 65 percent of those interviewed said that the ability to exercise choice has raised their expectations for their children’s educational accomplishments, while 28 percent said it had no effect. Even greater shares of African-American and low-income parents expressed this positive reaction.

The survey also revealed diverse reasons for using choice. Nearly one-third, or 30 percent, cited “academic performance or test scores” as the leading factor, but even more (38 percent) were looking for a different program or educational philosophy. Smaller class sizes, safety or discipline issues and extracurricular activities were all selected as other top reasons for transferring.

In his apology, Whiston clarified that he was trying to argue that choice alone won’t solve Michigan’s academic struggles. He also said that the state needs to address the challenges faced by districts losing students through choice programs. While the state might help by allowing local districts greater flexibility to innovate and attract more students, leaders should not protect districts by restricting the options families currently enjoy.

As they respond to the environment of school choice, education leaders should become more attuned to the voices of parents. Once they hear, loud and clear, that parents like choice, then they can focus on helping to make effective options available to even more families.

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