Most families like their public schools — what does that mean for school choice?
In Michigan, thousands of state residents have signed a petition that would establish education savings accounts for students. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer vetoed similar legislation last year, but if the petition makes it to the state ballot and passes this fall (and it’s looking like it will), it would create one of the largest school choice programs in the country by commanding as much as $500 million in annual funding to provide flexible spending accounts for low-income and special needs students.
Under the proposal, students could access $7,830 each year to pay for private school tuition and other customizable services such as tutoring or transportation.
But Michigan’s program wouldn’t just serve students who decide to leave their public school to homeschool or attend a private school; it would also make $500 available annually to qualifying students who remain in public schools and provide $1,100 annually for public school students with disabilities. While those amounts are only a fraction of the funds that would be available to students who withdraw from public school, it would be the first time a school choice proposal puts education dollars directly in the hands of students who remain in public schools.
This is a big deal, because granting the option of small-scale customization to families who are happy with their public schools may be exactly the reform strategy the school choice movement has needed for decades.
Opting out of a public school system to transfer to a private school is a big change for most families. Even with access to a publicly funded private school scholarship, a change of that degree might not be worth it for families who are only somewhat unhappy with their public school. This reality can help to explain why private school choice programs have grown at a slow pace over the last few decades and why the U.S. spends less than 0.4 percent of public education funds on private school choice programs.
It should also be noted that most families are generally happy with their public schools. A 2021 Gallup Poll found that “73 percent of parents of school-aged children say they are satisfied with the quality of education their oldest child is receiving.”
There simply isn’t enough dissatisfaction with the current system to catalyze a large-scale shift away from traditional public schools toward a customized, private sector-led education system.
Because of this, school choice proponents need policy solutions that meet most families where they are: something Michigan may be on the cusp of accomplishing with its education savings account (ESA) for public school students.
Most families might not be ready to leave the public K-12 system, but they would be excited for a chance to customize on the margins. While many parents can’t imagine curating their child’s entire curriculum, they can certainly envision the benefits of having some funds to pay for an SAT tutor, to enroll in a financial literacy course at a community college, or to buy a laptop.
This incremental step can introduce education choice to a large swath of previously unreached public-school families, whetting their appetites for more customization. And while there are already programs in other states that resemble something like a public school ESA, Michigan would build on these programs by providing public school students with even more flexibility over how they can use their funds.
For more than 20 years, the private school choice movement has focused on bringing a lot of choice to a relatively small contingent of families lucky enough to have access to vouchers, tax credit scholarships, and ESAs. Maybe it’s time for school choice proponents to consider Michigan’s approach of also giving a taste of choice to the majority of families who, understandably, aren’t ready to leave their traditional public schools.
Christian Barnard is a senior education policy analyst at Reason Foundation.
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