What Constitutes a Failing School?

This commentary originally appeared in the Feb. 26, 2001 Detroit News.

The Michigan Senate Education Committee is trying to figure out what failure is.

In a series of public hearings that concluded Wednesday, the Committee considered the question: What constitutes a "failing" public school district? Lawmakers need to know, since state intervention is now being enshrined as the latest remedy of last resort for chronically low-performing districts. When school districts "fail," the state intends to come to the rescue.

Stay Engaged

Receive our weekly emails!

Of course, "failure" is one of those concepts that became murky sometime in the 60s. Before that, parents and teachers pretty much knew it when they saw it, and they dealt with it. Today, our lawmakers have to hold hearings to figure out what it is. This fact alone ought to clue us in to the real problem.

But it doesn't. At the first hearing, witnesses offered a grab bag of criteria for determining what we might as well call "the failure standard." Some encouraged the use of MEAP test scores. Others suggested that graduation rates are a better measure. Still others argued for an index composed of many such indicators.

There are several problems with this approach, not least of which is the irrationality of trying to reach a consensus among the myriad parties involved-particularly those with a vested interest in maintaining the very status quo many classify as "failing." What failure criteria, for example, will satisfy a school employee labor union that balks at the very idea that schools can fail?

State intervention was supposed to be a remedy to a one-time emergency--the academic fraud in an urban district--never part of permanent policy. The fact that we're now debating standards for enshrining an emergency measure as regular procedure shows we are far from pursuing educational excellence in our schools and will focus our legislative energies on merely averting failure.

The real problem lawmakers are tackling is one many decades in the making. The sad fact is that Michigan's public schools are like any publicly funded bureaucracy. Their primary incentive is funding, and other considerations such as excellence are secondary. The state of Michigan has been striving for some time now to link funding to excellence, with mixed, generally unsatisfactory results.

Instead of drawing up a "failure standard" based on an arbitrary, contradictory political consensus, lawmakers should be asking who is best qualified to define "failure." The answer is whoever has a primary incentive to see that schools do well.

That's parents, of course. And because parents have that incentive, they also are most in touch with what constitutes failure. They know it when they see it, even if educators and lawmakers have to hold hearings to figure it out.

Parents--moms and dads--should be the final arbiters of whether Michigan schools are succeeding or failing. If lawmakers have the courage of their convictions, they will have to admit that this means some form of school choice, whether it be through a universal education credit or additional public school academies.

Once parents-not the state government in Lansing-are the ones whose choices determine school funding, the whole incentive structure of public and private education in Michigan will change. Even in schools where 80 or 90 percent of the students turn in satisfactory scores on the MEAP test, the 10 to 20 percent who might do better elsewhere will be able to go. It doesn't matter how well or poorly a school district is doing, there are always students who could benefit from having a choice. Parents ought to be able to judge this for themselves, and ought to be free to try another school without having to move to a new school district or pay tuition on top of school taxes.

Today, limits on charter schools, "gentlemen's agreements" by superintendents that limit public school choice, and the most restrictive language in any state constitution with regard to school choice, are all doing damage to the ability of Michigan school children to have the best educational experience available.

Instead of trying to fix failure from Lansing, the legislature ought let every Michigan parent decide what constitutes a failing school by removing the barriers that prevent them from exercising their primary right and responsibility to direct the education of their children. Then maybe one day everyone will recognize failing schools as the ones nobody sends their kids to anymore. Just as one-size-fits-all shoes will never work for children, neither will one-size-fits-all schools, reforms, or "failing" criteria.

Matthew J. Brouillette is director of education policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a Midland-based research and educational institute. More information is available at www.mackinac.org.