News Story

Debate on Eduation Bills Focuses On Choice

Who is best suited to decide what school a child should attend — parents or school administrators?

The education reform being discussed in the Legislature has generated considerable debate across the state.

Troy School District Spokeswoman Kerry Birmingham and Mackinac Center for Public Policy Director of Education Michael Van Beek disagreed on a number of points and engaged in a discussion about the proposed legislation that includes House Bill 6004 and House Bill 5923.

The following is an edited version of their exchange: 

VAN BEEK: One district's loss of enrollment is another district's gain. From a state-wide perspective, what's the difference? From a taxpayer's perspective, they are relatively the same.

BIRMINGHAM: This package of legislation creates a brand new "district" that is not made up of school districts at all — it will be made up of for-profit companies that are not held to any quality standards whatsoever. These new schools would be exempt from state testing, which makes it impossible to assess whether they are doing a good job of educating students at all. Parents would not be making informed decisions — they'd be making decisions based on marketing and what they hope a "specialty" school would be able to offer their child. That is not a good use of taxpayer dollars but more importantly, it is horrible education policy and robs students of a quality education. 

VAN BEEK: No parent or child would be forced to enroll in a non-conventional school district. They all could stay exactly where they are right now. If the programs and opportunities that districts provide them are what they really want, then districts have no need to worry. The goal should be to increase the number of students educated in environments that work best for them, not to maintain the size or scope of state-created bureaucracy.

BIRMINGHAM: Students do not have to leave in hordes for this to have an impact. State funding for public schools has already been cut to the point that many programs and educational opportunities are hanging on by a thread — programs that are critically important to ensuring that students are ready for college and their future careers. Every student who leaves jeopardizes opportunities for everyone else. It's also important to note that although our system funds public education at the same rate for every student, the cost to educate every student is not the same. For example, because it is very expensive to fund upper level high school science courses; it costs far more to educate a high school student than it does to educate a kindergarten student. ...If a fair number of lower elementary students leave a district, then a district could be hard pressed to be able to offer those types of courses to high school students. ...Our public school system is built on the very American foundation of opportunity for all students to grow and excel. We do not discriminate in public education in this country by allowing some students entrance into "selective enrollment" schools and excluding others.

VAN BEEK: School districts absolutely do discriminate and selectively enroll students. The Troy school district can deny services to any student whose parents to not reside within its geographical boundaries. One of the main concepts in the school aid proposal is to break down these geographical boundaries by allowing districts that educate students outside of their district the opportunity to receive state funding on their behalf. State policy has already allowed this to a limited extend for about 18 years; this proposal simply expands that policy. But, districts that don't want to serve students outside their geographical boundaries can continue to operate without change. For those districts, over the course of the next several years, this will likely have very little impact on them. 

BIRMINGHAM: This will have a tremendous impact on how schools will operate. Instead of focusing solely on the education of students, schools will have to focus on marketing themselves and compete on issues far outside what is the best educational opportunity for a given student. If you want to compete on the basis of an exemplary education that best prepares students for college, then the vast majority of public school districts in Michigan would win, hands down. But parents would have no data to accurately assess these new schools. ...Proponents like the Mackinac Center insist that parents are best equipped to make the right choices for their own children, but without any data, quality standards or unbiased information to make those choices, parents could not make informed decisions. 

VAN BEEK: These Chicken Little routines are just unfounded. It's based on one fallacious argument that it forces students to be enrolled in new schools or new online courses, or if given the opportunity, tons of parents will flee the districts their children are currently enrolled in. School districts that are providing parents with what they want have nothing to worry about expanded school choice opportunities for students. The fundamental question boils down to this: Who is best positioned to decide what kind of educational environment is best for a child — his or her parents or a government bureaucracy busy trying to make the same decision for hundreds and sometimes thousands of other children? Both must rely on imperfect knowledge about the best interest of the child, but parents have the best chance of getting it right.

BIRMINGHAM: We know that our parents value the education that Troy Schools provides for their children and they realize that we are a very high quality district. However, without access to comparison data, other options might seem tempting at first glance. The playing field is neither level nor transparent. 

VAN BEEK: It's just providing an option. If parents don't like that option, they won't take it and nothing will change. Fundamentally, is this about completely changing the way public school works or is it allowing parents to make decisions about their kid's education that had only been allowed previously to be made by school board members and superintendents? Districts worried that the very same parents who chose to enroll in their schools and elected the school board members to serve them are going to suddenly fall prey to marketing gimmicks by potential new schools will need to make an effort to educate those parents about why their district is still the best choice. 

BIRMINGHAM: This is not about options — if it were, every school would operate by the same rules, be open to all and have the same level of accountability and quality control. This is about dismantling public education in Michigan and centralizing power to a very few in Lansing. Parents make education choices now by moving to a particular community or through Schools of Choice. School Board members are elected locally and the superintendent serves at their pleasure. If there is a problem or an issue with a school not properly educating students, the people who live in the community have the democratic right to vote those school board members out of office and the school board members have the obligation to replace the superintendent. This package of bills is a power grab that takes away local control entirely and put it in the hands of a very few appointed bureaucrats.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.