It's School Choice Week, and Michigan is at the fore of the celebration

It's School Choice Week, and Michigan is at the fore of the celebration
© Greg Nash

This week, nearly 32,000 National School Choice Week (NSCW) events are taking place across the country. For eight years running, parents and students donning the iconic yellow scarves bring their message of hope to cities and states around the country where hope for bright futures is often the most dim. Together, these families showcase the diversity of our children’s’ academic needs and their need for more educational options.

With Betsy DeVosElizabeth (Betsy) Dee DeVosGOP set for all-out battle over Michigan Senate seat 'Can I get a ride?' Removing an obstacle for families using school choice DeVos should be applauded, not demonized, for her work in education MORE heading the U.S. Department of Education, proponents of choice may finally have an ally committed to breaking down traditional barriers in our traditional education system. For nearly a year, DeVos has ably used her bully pulpit to proclaim the message that "the focus should be on the ends, not the means" of education. In other words, let's not pit public versus private, or district versus charter, or online learning versus traditional brick-and-mortar schools. Rather, let's start letting parents select from a range of learning opportunities as they seek to prepare their children for success.

That view closely mirrors the message and mission of National School Choice Week, which recommends no one approach to education other than deferring to parents, but defers to giving families the greatest access to learning options that work for them. Yet ardent defenders of the current system push back against this effort to level the playing field.


Nowhere do we find the need for hope than in DeVos’s home state of Michigan, where opponents are especially determined to cast the results of choice in a negative light. To perpetrate this organized smear job, which has reached as far as The New York Times, one has to disregard both the best research and the many stories of families who benefit.


A poignant example occurred recently during a November 2017 confirmation hearing for U.S. Department of Education officials. Sen. Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurraySenate passes bipartisan bill to permanently fund historically black colleges Overnight Health Care — Presented by Johnson & Johnson — Senate panel approves Trump FDA pick | Biden downplays Dem enthusiasm around 'Medicare for All' | Trump officials unveil program for free HIV prevention drugs for uninsured Trump's FDA nominee approved by Senate panel MORE (D-Wash.) described Detroit charter schools as “disastrous for children.” She added that “charter schools in Michigan are performing worse than traditional public schools.” Yet the facts prove both these statements untrue. 

Sen. Murray’s line of interrogation, designed to make a political point, ignored the reality on the ground. First, she omitted the fact that Michigan charter schools are located largely in the state’s urban centers, and many more of its students start out behind due to poverty at home. These charter schools, which are tuition-free and offer open enrollment, serve a little more than 10 percent of the state’s public school population. Half their students are African-American and 70 percent are low-income, compared to 14 percent and 42 percent in Michigan’s traditional public schools, respectively. 

A much more meaningful measure than the raw achievement scores cited by critics of charter schools is the progress students make in key academic subjects. The best available research shows that attending a charter, in the city of Detroit, or Michigan at large, gains students two to three months of learning each year. More remarkably, the state’s charters make these gains with $2,800 less funding per student, on average.

Michigan’s results fit with those nationwide. A 2014 University of Arkansas study of 28 different states found charter schools are 40 percent more cost-effective than other public schools at boosting achievement in math and reading.

When Murray and others offer misleading assertions about choice, they disparage places like Detroit Merit Charter Academy and Northridge Academy in Flint. These, and many other schools that serve almost entirely poor and black students, do a better job of achieving at grade level than their district counterparts. At Ann Arbor’s Central Academy, which focuses on expanding cultural awareness for a largely poor and Middle Eastern population, including a growing number of refugees, 95 percent of graduates go on to college.

For now, a strict constitutional amendment in Michigan limits public support for educational choice there to charter and other public schools. Even so, families want choice. Nearly one in four public school students attends either a charter school or a conventional district outside their residence through the state’s 20-year-old “Schools of Choice” program.

A Mackinac Center survey earlier this year of more than 800 parents who exercise public school choice, including charter enrollment, found that two-thirds did so primarily for academic reasons. Sixty-five percent of respondents said that their experience with school choice has raised their expectations of their child’s educational success, nearly 10 times as many as those who gave the opposite answer.

While self-interested and ideological opponents may not see the benefits of educational choice, both parents and researchers do. This year, our state’s celebration of National School Choice Week will be led by Michigan parents and students. While our state and nation have made important progress, these families know that much work remains ahead to ensure students have access to the full range of education options that work for them. 

Ben DeGrow (@BenDeGrow) is director of education policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a free-market research and education foundation in Midland, Michigan.