The MC: The Mackinac Center Blog

The Many Benefits of Ridesharing

Lyft and Uber provide transportation and jobs in Michigan

Ridesharing companies face a number of difficulties in Michigan. Municipalities regulate taxis and the state regulates limousines, but Uber and Lyft don’t fall into either category. The legal gray area they occupy has made it difficult for drivers to operate in places like Ann Arbor, as described in a recent article.

By contrast, Uber received a warm welcome from law enforcement in Grand Rapids. Babacar, a driver there, said the police love Uber. “Basically, around two in the morning, we clean the city,” he says. “We take everybody home. I think that’s the reason the police love us, love the Uber drivers. We help them. We make their jobs very easy.”

Indeed, while the phenomenon requires further study, Uber has found that when ridesharing companies can freely operate in a city, drunk driving arrests drop by over 10 percent. One driver said he regularly drives people with a DUI on their record, adding that some will even bring Uber receipts to court to prove they’re being more responsible and making better decisions.

But ridesharing doesn’t just make the roads safer, it also provides large numbers of flexible jobs for those in need of extra income or a way to tide them over between jobs. When it is possible to begin working without obtaining a costly new license or starting a taxi company, ridesharing drivers can start work almost immediately, on their own terms — choosing their hours and where they want to work.

Ridesharing also has the potential to take cars off the road, cutting down on road congestion and pollution. In 2015, Uber launched a new service in New York City that matched up people making similar commutes to save them money and remove cars from rush hour traffic.

Michigan might be a different ballgame, but ridesharing has had an impact here, too. Tim, a driver in Ann Arbor, tells of a regular customer who sold her car after realizing that Uber would be a cheaper way to get to work: “It’s $100 a month, or $200 a month. But prior to that, they were paying the car payment, insurance and gas.”

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Some believe that drivers for Uber and Lyft should be regulated like taxi drivers, and that the lack of a regulatory structure gives ridesharing an unfair advantage. “I think even the taxi industry is way over-regulated,” said Kevin, a driver from Flint, adding that the popularity of services like Lyft and Uber should “show legislators that people want an alternative.”

“A lot of people I give rides to never used a taxi before,” Kevin said. “They use this now because it’s so convenient and so easy.”

Rebecca, who drives in Grand Rapids, concurs. “The amount of young people I pick up amazes me,” she said. “I see that they’re getting rides and they’re being responsible, and it’s so inexpensive for them, whereas taxis are inconvenient, you have to sit around and wait for who knows how long and they’re very expensive.”

Ridesharing companies currently operate in metro Detroit, Ann Arbor, Lansing, East Lansing, Flint, Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids, but cannot expand services further until the Legislature passes an overarching framework for them to follow. The House passed a package of bills that would exempt ridesharing drivers from needing a special license and set parameters for insurance and how these companies provide their services. It sits in the Senate Regulatory Reforms Committee.

Learn more at mackinac.org/ridesharing.

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Related Articles:

Ann Arbor Crackdown Illustrates Need for Statewide Ridesharing Framework

Can I Catch a Ride?: Regulating Uber and Lyft in Michigan

The Boundaries of Educational Choice: Surveying Michigan's Private School Landscape

Statewide Ridesharing Regulations

Michigan Bill Could Give Ride-Sharing an Uber Lift

Detroit Mayor Says His Commission Will Be Independent While His City Discriminates

Be wary of limiting competition in a failing school district

Last month the Michigan Senate passed a plan for Detroit Public Schools that gives the district a $700 million-plus bailout while establishing a commission with the power to shut down schools, including independent charter schools.

The Detroit Education Commission has long been pushed by labor unions and school administrators who dislike competition from outside charter schools, which both parents and Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcomes believe do a better job educating students.

The DEC members will be appointed by Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, who has been heavily lobbying for the power. Duggan claims the commission will operate as an "impartial judge" and shut down only bad schools, regardless of whether they are traditional public schools or charters. That is unlikely for two main reasons.

First, the DEC's main job will be to do the bidding of the traditional public school district and keep it solvent. That means it will have an incentive to shut down charter competition and keep open traditional schools. Second, the mayor, who will appoint all the members of the commission, has already shown himself to be hostile to school choice. Recently, Michigan Capitol Confidential broke the story that he signed off on a plan that would transfer properties from DPS to the city in order to prevent them from being sold to charter schools — no matter how good of a job a charter school may do.

How can parents in Detroit believe that Duggan will be fair to charter schools when his city is currently discriminating against good charter school operators by intentionally making it harder for them to find a place to operate? And why is a city emerging from bankruptcy turning down money to sell properties it isn't using?

The Senate legislation has not passed; it is sitting in the Michigan House. House members should be very wary of bailing out Detroit Public Schools and limiting competition with the failing school district.

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Related Articles:

Four Questions About the Detroit Public Schools Plan

Czar-Like Detroit Education Commission Part of Establishment's 'War on Charters?'

'Level' Playing Field for Detroit Charter Schools?

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Worker’s Choice Solves Free-/Forced-Rider Problem in Wisconsin

Vernuccio op-ed explains idea in national publications

When a Wisconsin judge struck down the state’s right-to-work law April 8, he relied on the false argument that giving employees the ability to work without the fear of being fired for not belonging to a union creates a “free-rider” problem.

As the Mackinac Center’s Director of Labor Policy F. Vincent Vernuccio explained in an op-ed published in both the National Review and The Washington Times, the real issue is that even in right-to-work states, those who work in unionized shops have no choice but to do so under terms negotiated by unions. Unions have long lobbied for the monopoly they have on representing all workers, even those who opt not to belong, and now accuse them of being “free riders.”

Vernuccio said such workers are actually forced riders because they are not permitted to represent themselves in contract negotiations and must accept whatever the union offers. Giving workers a choice would eliminate this problem for both unions and workers.

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With Worker’s Choice, unionized employees would truly have an option. They could stay a member of the union, pay and receive representation, or they could act like the nearly 88 percent of workers in the country who work without a union contract.

These employees could negotiate agreements that are tailored to their own needs rather than be shoehorned into a one-size-fits-all union contract. A worker could negotiate a merit pay deal that rewards his or her extra efforts and results, benefiting the employer as well with a more productive employee. Unions, by contrast generally prefer that raises be given out strictly on the basis of seniority.

Worker’s Choice would give employees who get into trouble at work the freedom to represent themselves in the most effective manner. Most union contracts require workers in disciplinary proceedings or other dealings with their employer to go through the union.

Rep. Gary Glenn has introduced a version of Worker’s Choice in the Michigan Legislature and it may be on the ballot in Oregon.

Read the full op-ed at the National Review or The Washington Times.

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Worker’s Choice Gives Unions and Employees More Freedom

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Labor Reform Not a Death Knell for Legislators After All

Ann Arbor Crackdown Illustrates Need for Statewide Ridesharing Framework

Eliminate gray areas surrounding Lyft and Uber

Uber and Lyft have provided excellent transportation alternatives to countless Michiganders in metro Detroit and Ann Arbor for the past few years, and Uber has since expanded to Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, Lansing, East Lansing and Flint. But both companies operate in a legal gray area, and unclear regulations have caused headaches for passengers and drivers in some cities.

The state of Michigan regulates limousines and taxis are largely regulated by local municipalities. Ridesharing doesn’t fall into either category, and so it operates in a sort of legal gray area. So far, municipalities have been the ones regulating ridesharing, but this has produced varying degrees of success.

For instance, in spring 2014, Lyft and Uber announced plans to launch in Ann Arbor. The city floated a number of possible responses, including deregulating taxi fares and having drivers of limousines and ridesharing companies register with the city as taxis do. But in the end, it chose to issue cease-and-desist orders instead.

The absence of regulation does not automatically indicate illegality, however, and Uber and Lyft chose to continue operations in the city on the belief that doing so did not violate state law. While news reports on the subject suggest that local police did not enforce the cease-and-desist order, many drivers have said they were taken to court for driving in the city.

“One time, a traffic cop gave me a citation in Ann Arbor for driving without a certificate of authority,” said Kevin, a married father of four from Flint. “I had no idea what was going on or what it was!”

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Larry, a retired autoworker from Detroit, has a similar story to tell: “I got a ticket in Ann Arbor for operating a limousine without state certification,” he said. “That was a $1,180 fix for a $500 ticket.”

Cars that are used for ridesharing companies are not limousines. But Tim, who has driven for both Uber and Lyft in Ann Arbor, said he registered as a chauffeur just to try to avoid the hassle, which he said could include 90 days in jail in addition to fines. The chauffeur’s license is much cheaper than a taxi license and “[shows] any police that pull me over that I’m at least trying to do something that’s reasonable.”

Rebecca drives in Grand Rapids, which has been much friendlier to Uber drivers. She looked into the chauffeur’s license, but ultimately decided against it. “That to me is all about the state trying to get more money,” she explained. “It’s not really about anything that is going to help the passenger’s safety or anything else. It’s basically the same license I have already — what, you’re saying I can’t pick up a friend and bring them somewhere?”

Last year, the Michigan House passed a package of bills which would allow ridesharing drivers to work without a chauffeur’s license and outlined requirements for insurance, background checks and vehicle inspections; Uber and Lyft already comply with many of these regulations. But a competing bill introduced in the Senate would create the opposite: an expensive, overbearing licensing structure allowing municipalities like Ann Arbor to crack down on ridesharing drivers.

Tim said letting individual municipalities determine how to regulate Uber and Lyft could even cause both companies to abandon the state. “There’s how many cities in the Detroit area?” he asked. “You’d have different regulations at airports, each city. … It would not be good.”

Uber and Lyft have provided an employment opportunity to thousands of Michiganders and much-needed rides for many more. But while regulation in Michigan is unsettled, so is the future of ridesharing here. Learn more at mackinac.org/ridesharing.

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Related Articles:

The Many Benefits of Ridesharing

Can I Catch a Ride?: Regulating Uber and Lyft in Michigan

The Boundaries of Educational Choice: Surveying Michigan's Private School Landscape

Statewide Ridesharing Regulations

Michigan Bill Could Give Ride-Sharing an Uber Lift

Pure Michigan Campaign Ineffective, Needs To End

New op-ed published in the Detroit News

Michigan taxpayers spend $33 million each year marketing the state through the Pure Michigan ad campaign. New findings from the Mackinac Center find that money is largely wasted.

The ineffectiveness of the Pure Michigan promotional program is the focus of an op-ed in The Detroit News by Mackinac Center scholar Michael Hicks and Michael LaFaive, director of the Morey Fiscal Policy Initiative. The piece was published as the Pure Michigan Governor’s Conference on Tourism convened in Lansing, and suggested lawmakers end the subsidy.

The Pure Michigan promotion campaign has received $261 million in state appropriations since 2006. Michigan’s tourism industry wants more and has said in writing that one of its goals is to see a $50 million appropriation by 2017. Michigan is not the only state to spend millions of dollars in the state-promotion game.…

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We found that advertising has a positive, but microscopic impact on the tourism industry. For the average state —including Michigan — a $1 million increase in state promotion spending resulted in an increase of $20,000 in economic activity shared by the entire accommodations industry.

Advertising might be a good use of businesses’ money, but it is not a good use of taxpayer money.

Read the full op-ed in The Detroit News.

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Related Articles:

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Study: State Tourism Promotion Ineffective

Pope Francis Favors School Choice

Educating children a “primary” and “inalienable” right of parents

The following is a quote from Pope Francis’ recent “apostolic exhortation” on the subject of “Love in the Family:”

At the same time I feel it important to reiterate that the overall education of children is a “most serious duty” and at the same time a “primary right” of parents. This is not just a task or a burden, but an essential and inalienable right that parents are called to defend and of which no one may claim to deprive them. The State offers educational programmes in a subsidiary way, supporting the parents in their indeclinable role; parents themselves enjoy the right to choose freely the kind of education – accessible and of good quality – which they wish to give their children in accordance with their convictions. Schools do not replace parents, but complement them. (Emphasis added.)

H/T: Nicholas G. Hahn III piece in the Wall Street Journal, April 14, 2016

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Michigan Celebrates School Choice

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Spalding Quoted in The Detroit News

April 15, 2016 MichiganVotes Weekly Roll Call Report

Ban “cyber revenge porn,” authorize Pet Protection Orders, rapist fathers’ rights, yoga regulation

Senate Bill 818, Exempt yoga instruction schools from licensure mandate: Passed 35 to 0 in the Senate

To exempt yoga teacher training schools from a state licensure mandate imposed on private trade-schools, with annual fees, government inspections, regulations and more. A Senate Fiscal Agency analysis notes that many take the classes just for the experience, and "the regulations reportedly have created a business environment that deters...offering or expanding instruction programs."

Who Voted “Yes” and Who Voted “No”

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House Bill 4478, Authorize protection orders for threats against pets: Passed 37 to 0 in the Senate

To authorize courts to issue a personal protection order against a former spouse, boyfriend or girlfriend who threatens, harms or tries to take an animal in which the petitioner has an ownership interest, or who interferes with the petitioner's efforts to remove the animal from the premises of the individual to be restrained.

Who Voted “Yes” and Who Voted “No”


House Bill 4481, Expand denial of rapist father's parental rights: Passed 37 to 0 in the Senate

To expand a law that prohibits granting custody or parenting time to the father of a child who was conceived as the result of a rape for which he was convicted. Under the bill the ban would also apply if there was no conviction but a court fact-finding hearing discovers "clear and convincing" evidence that a rape had occurred. Also, to expand the criteria to cases where the rape and conviction was in another state. A mother could waive the ban, and it would not apply if the parents "cohabit and establish a mutual custodial environment."

Who Voted “Yes” and Who Voted “No”


House Bill 4476, Restrict imposing mediation in some domestic relations disputes: Passed 37 to 0 in the Senate

To prohibit a court from ordering the parties in a domestic relations dispute to enter mediation against either's will if there is a personal protection or "no contact" order restraining one of them, or if either is involved in a child abuse or neglect proceeding.

Who Voted “Yes” and Who Voted “No”


House Bill 5283, Sell unclaimed property records to "locators": Passed 75 to 33 in the House

To revise the "escheats" law that lets the state government take possession of unclaimed property, by allowing the state to sell information on this property to “locator” services that make money by finding apparent owners who pay them for having found the property. The bill would impose the equivalent of a $300 annual license fee on these services in addition to the cost of any records they purchase.

Who Voted “Yes” and Who Voted “No”


House Bill 4580, Let local governments selectively revoke selective property tax breaks: Passed 109 to 0 in the House

To allow local governments to revoke certain tax breaks selectively granted to particular corporations or developers if the beneficiary does not abide by the terms of the tax break agreement, or is judged to no longer meet the criteria under which the tax break was authorized. This applies to property taxes levied on business tools and equipment ("personal property tax").

Who Voted “Yes” and Who Voted “No”


House Bill 4695, Authorize load limit exceptions for potable water haulers: Passed 57 to 51 in the House

To allow an exception to seasonal road weight limit restrictions for trucks hauling drinking water.

Who Voted “Yes” and Who Voted “No”


Senate Bill 508, Criminalize "cyber revenge porn": Passed 109 to 0 in the House

To make it a crime to post on the internet any sexually explicit pictures or videos of a person without his or her consent and with the intent to threaten, coerce or intimidate, if the material was obtained under circumstances a reasonable person would know were meant to remain private.

Who Voted “Yes” and Who Voted “No”


SOURCE: MichiganVotes.org, a free, non-partisan website created by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, providing concise, non-partisan, plain-English descriptions of every bill and vote in the Michigan House and Senate. Please visit http://www.MichiganVotes.org.

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Related Articles:

February 26, 2016 MichiganVotes Weekly Roll Call Report

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July 10, 2015 MichiganVotes Weekly Roll Call Report

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May 29, 2015 MichiganVotes Weekly Roll Call

Closing Pensions for State Employees in 1990s Saved Michigan Millions Today

Study highlights savings from defined-contribution reform

Michigan lawmakers voted 20 years ago to close the state employee pension system to new members. A new study by Anthony Randazzo and Truong Bui of the Reason Foundation looked at Michigan’s experience to see whether this reform helped the state. They found that the state saved itself from racking up hundreds of millions more in additional unfunded liabilities. But their study also has other major lessons for Michigan as it considers further pension reforms.

The state employee system currently owes its members $6.2 billion more in pension benefits than it has saved. Filling the gap would cost each household in Michigan roughly $1,600. Some have asserted that this gap developed because the state closed the pension system.

But the Reason authors created a hypothetical model of what would have happened if the system had not been closed — and found just the opposite. Their model shows, as does the one from our 2011 report, that the move saved the state from further developing unfunded liabilities.

The authors found a couple of factors that caused these unfunded liabilities to grow from nothing to $6.2 billion. The state set aside less than the actuarially recommended amounts — putting in only 88 percent of the needed contributions. The pension fund’s investments also produced fewer returns than the state assumed they would. (Managers assumed these funds would return 8 percent per year, but they only achieved 7.1 percent.) An early retirement incentive passed in 2010 also punched an additional $200 million hole in the pension system.

While Michigan lawmakers closed the state employee pension system in 1997, it left its larger school employee system open to new members. There are bills that change this moving forward, but legislators have been concerned that this may trigger prohibitive “transition costs” in paying down unfunded liabilities.

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Reason’s study refutes those concerns by looking at Michigan’s own experience with the state employee system. Michigan started adding unfunded liabilities shortly after 1997. Its methods of paying those unfunded liabilities were the same as those for its school pension system. It was not until 2005 that the state chose to switch to a more expedited amortization policy, showing that these alleged transition costs are avoidable.

For more on transition costs see our 2012 study.

For more on pension reforms, go to www.mackinac.org/pension.

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Pure Flummery: Seeing Double on Corporate Welfare Spin

Pure Michigan ads are attractive corporate welfare

Background

Previous articles in this series have documented the secrecy surrounding what have been called “budget justification” reports purchased through no-bid contracts by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation from a company called Longwoods International. (See “Pure Michigan Puffery” Parts I and II as well as “Puffery or Proof?”) Longwoods produces very similar products for agencies in at least eight other states, claiming high returns from taxpayer-funded tourism ads.

The MEDC is this state’s agency in charge of business subsidy and assistance programs. Last year it got a $33 million appropriation to run its “Pure Michigan” ad campaign. The agency would like to get another $33 million or more this year.

However attractive you think the Pure Michigan ads may be, they amount to pure corporate welfare for the travel and leisure industry. This reality, and the fact that even in Lansing $33 million is real money, means that during appropriations season legislators and the public may need some convincing.

That’s where Longwoods comes in. The most recent report it did for the MEDC purports to show a $6.87 return for every dollar spent on Pure Michigan ads in 2014. Whether this is accurate or even plausible cannot be determined because Longwoods refuses to reveal all the details of the methods it may have used to generate the claim.

The MEDC paid almost $150,000 for this product, but agency officials haven’t shown much curiosity regarding their hand-picked vendor’s claims. To the contrary, the MEDC has offered a dubious defense of the secrecy.

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Who Watches the Watchers?

Such unanswered questions are not helpful for “budget justification” purposes. (That’s how Longwoods characterized research it produced for another state’s tourism agency. The statement was made on a page that has since been taken down from the company’s website.)

So it is interesting that in 2011, when pressed on similar questions about earlier Longwoods’ reports, the then-head of Michigan’s travel promotion bureau pointed to a “validation study” for which the MEDC paid a different contractor $5,000. While this was supposed to confirm that the Longwoods methodology was valid, it also suggests the agency knew these reports had a credibility problem.

Moreover, even this second vendor said Longwoods had a “lack of total transparency,” and acknowledged that reviewing its process would “require costly replication to totally confirm” that its claims were valid. But even if cost were no object, Longwoods’ secrecy would make confirming its claims impossible.

Dodgy Methods Acknowledged

We do know some things about the method, although the details provide little comfort. Bill Siegel, founder and CEO of Longwoods, has said his company uses a hybrid system based on what are called “conversion” and advertising tracking studies. The former are said to measure how many people responded to a travel ad by later visiting the destination.

Nevertheless, traditional conversion study methods appear to have been what the validation study authors used for their work. Conversion studies have been widely criticized by academic economists, who consider them highly dubious. In his book, “Tourism Analysis: A Handbook,” author Stephen Smith writes that — especially with tax-funded travel promotion agencies — “Conversion studies are increasingly popular … as a tool to justify budgets. Because of survival motivation, many conversion studies fall short of full adherence to rigorous scientific procedures.” Smith wrote this was especially true of tax-funded agencies that promote tourism interests.

Even Siegel (writing with colleague William Ziff-Levine) said in 1990 that, “The main value of a conversion study would appear to be to get diagnostic information on a fulfillment piece, not to provide hard numbers on the bottom-line return on-investment of a campaign.” More recently, he said that this hybrid approach uses the parts of the conversion study system that he believes are its most useful and effective.

And then there is the secrecy. While you can read an online copy of the survey Longwoods used to produce its 2014 report, it is meaningless without a detailed explanation of how the company used the survey to derive its claim of a 587 percent return from an ad campaign. And such an explanation is exactly what you won’t find on any Longwoods website or published document.

The MEDC’s validation contractor was supposed to evaluate the legitimacy of Longwoods’ claim. Notwithstanding Longwood’s lack of transparency, this second outfit chose to attempt its own version of a conversion study.

Process Fails Smell Test

As if doubts about the underlying contract weren’t enough, there are many reasons to question the practice of paying a second contractor to validate the claims of a “budget justification” contractor.

To begin with, the MEDC did not issue a request for proposals, which could have given it a number of validation contractors to choose from. Instead, agency officials hand-picked a contractor, which at the very least limited the scope of possible perspectives. Also, it’s hard to ignore that the co-author of the validation study is a former vice president of Longwoods International, the company being evaluated.

That revolving-door relationship is part of a pattern. The MEDC official who mentioned the validation study in 2011 was George Zimmerman, whose title was vice president of the MEDC's Travel Michigan office, which oversees state promotion efforts. Mr. Zimmerman has since been hired by Longwoods International as its chairman.

The questions multiply when details of this second contractor’s work are examined. For instance, the survey research it used involves asking respondents to report the degree to which the state of Michigan’s advertisements influenced their decision to visit. This introduces the possibility of response bias — a pitfall of survey research — which would influence the output. Moreover, the authors simply lump in two categories of responses at different rates before making their calculations. They claim this is a common technique but offer no supporting evidence. Curiously, one result derived by the validation authors apparently matched the Longwoods International conclusions to the penny ($3.42).

Confirmation Study Confirms Nothing

Perhaps not surprisingly, the validation study authors so thoroughly hedged and qualified their report that they appear to doubt whether “return on investment” claims like Longwoods’ can actually be measured. In one place they wrote, “The ‘real’ conversion rate in [sic] unknown and next to impossible to derive given the many variables involved, many beyond the control of the researcher.”

Elsewhere, contractor No. 2 admitted, that “the possible confidence interval for our estimate is wide,” and that “our bottom line estimate will likely be inflated to the degree that other Michigan advertisers were also engaged in these markets at this time at a level beyond the precision of this estimate.” Translation: They came up with a ballpark estimate in a very large ballpark. Still the contractor suggests that even if they’re off by 25 percent the result is still positive.

The outfit that was paid $5,000 to prepare this report can at least be commended for admitting they don’t know what they don’t know.

Perhaps capping all the preceding, 2011 press reports describe former MEDC and current Longwoods International official George Zimmerman repeatedly pointing to the validation study to support his company’s claims about MEDC ad spending. However, the validation study contract was entered into in 2007 to cover a Longwoods’ report on a 2003 tourism ad campaign. Published reports indicate that the state had validated Longwoods’ technique but failed to mention that the validation work involved ads unrelated to the Pure Michigan campaign.

Conclusion

To sum up:

  • MEDC officials have granted a series of no-bid contracts to Longwoods International, a company that has basically advertised itself as a “budget justification” assistance service.
  • The agency asked the company to quantify a positive return from tax-funded tourism ads, not to discover whether the spending generates a positive return — meaning it simply assumed a positive return. (See “Puffery or Proof?” for details.)
  • The MEDC’s close ties to Longwoods are mirrored by a tie between Longwoods and the firm hired to confirm the validity of its claims.
  • Independent verification of Longwoods’ methods is impossible, however, because the company refuses to reveal the details of those methods.
  • Recognizing it may have a credibility problem, the MEDC hired a second firm to examine Longwoods’ claims about a particular ad campaign.
  • The second contractor all but admitted that the thing it was hired to do — verify Longwoods’ extraordinary “return on investment” claims — was impossible.

All of this amounts to an ongoing campaign by officials in a government agency to justify continued spending on a corporate welfare program that’s a major component of their annual budget, with no credible evidence that taxpayer dollars aren’t being flushed away.

Yet policymakers and taxpayers are expected to presume that these officials are acting solely in the public interest rather than their own interest and that of the industry benefiting from this corporate welfare. The events described in this series make this presumption exceedingly difficult to grant.

Indeed, it has become almost impossible to avoid the conclusion that it all amounts to a self-serving campaign of self-promotion by an agency whose continued existence and legitimacy are the focus of growing skepticism from lawmakers and taxpayers.

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Related Articles:

Pure Michigan Campaign Ineffective, Needs To End

House Road Plan Leaves Plenty of Money for Pure Michigan Campaign

State's Tourism Agency Sees Tourism-Boosting Lodging Service as a 'Threat'

State Tourism Spending Ineffective

Study: State Tourism Promotion Ineffective

Trust Parents with Schools of Choice

Don't restrict opportunity for 'historically disadvantaged' student groups

It doesn’t take much to trigger one education official’s strong instinct to constrain parental choice, a reaction not justified by the evidence. State Board of Education President John Austin misused a study on Michigan’s Schools of Choice program to try and make the case for curtailing parents’ ability to find a school that best fit their children’s needs.

The Schools of Choice program is a policy first enacted in the late 1990s that allows Michigan families to enroll students in other traditional public schools across district lines. It is extremely popular with parents.

A recent Bridge Magazine story highlights this by looking at a first-of-its-kind 2015 study by Michigan State University professor Joshua Cowen and graduate student Benjamin Creed. Following a December 2013 Mackinac report that identified long-term growth in Schools of Choice participation, the MSU study found a continuing trend. Between 2002-03 and 2012-13, inter-district choice nearly tripled — from about 40,000 to 115,000 students — even as the state’s overall public school enrollment declined by 180,000.

Factoring out student characteristics that impact test scores, Cowen and Creed found that participation in Schools of Choice yielded, on average, no discernible achievement gains for students on state tests. This finding prompted a drastic overreaction by the State Board of Education President.

Austin was quoted in the Bridge article: “Unrestrained choice is an unmitigated disaster for Michigan. Cross-district choice is less about learning than about competing for students and money.”

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To begin, the Schools of Choice program is hardly “unrestrained.” Under Section 105 of the School Aid Act, local districts have the option whether to participate at all, and can set various caps on out-of-district enrollment. Local districts establish application procedures, and determine whether to accept students only from neighboring districts or from neighboring intermediate school districts, which usually are farther away. The state prevents any participation beyond a neighboring ISD.

Austin would take that constraint even further. He reportedly told Bridge that Schools of Choice students should receive less funding. The MSU study found that “historically disadvantaged” student groups, African-Americans and those in poverty, are most likely to enroll across district lines. His proposal would create incentives that further restrict an opportunity disproportionately used by kids who have more challenges to overcome.

The MSU study found a neutral impact, but it did so based only on standardized test scores. These scores are one key measurement of the value a school adds to a child’s education, but not the only one. And Cowen makes this clear in a blog post about the study: “[Schools of Choice] does not appear to be hurting achievement, overall, so it’s reasonable to consider other ways of measuring its success.” Austin would have been wise to consider this fact before launching his tirade against parental choice.

Parents opt to use interdistrict choice for reasons other than just trying to increase standardize test scores, such as physical safety, academic offerings, extracurricular opportunities, school culture or special programs more aligned with their children’s aptitudes. This latest research suggesting Schools of Choice does no academic harm is not a sufficient cause for robbing parents of the ability to choose a school for these other legitimate reasons.

Austin’s view of Schools of Choice holds the interests of government agencies, in this case school districts, above those of parents and students. Since Schools of Choice isn’t “working,” this thinking goes, get rid of it so as to make life easier for school officials by making it easier for them to budget from year-to-year.

This differs significantly, of course, from a view that places the interests of parents above those of school districts. Parents know better than anyone else the needs of their children, and thus should have the right to choose the best school for their child.

Since Schools of Choice appears to do no harm while providing several unmeasurable benefits to parents and students, it should be continued and even potentially expanded. It’s unfortunate that Austin entirely neglects this point of view in denouncing a popular school choice program.

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