Voters’ Support for School Choice Remains Strong

Most Detroit residents want more options

MLive reports this week that the share of Michigan students enrolling across school district lines or in public charter schools has reached 23 percent. Still others choose private schools (7 percent) or homeschooling (3 percent). The growing trend of families to access different school options is reinforced by the broader popularity of choice found in a new Mackinac Center public opinion survey.

The new scientific statewide poll, conducted by Marketing Research Group, shows 55 percent of Michigan voters support public charter schools as an option for families, more than twice as many as are opposed.

The result is consistent with answers given to an identical question two years ago, despite heightened attacks in 2014 from major media outlets and organized interest groups. More recently, a political full-court press nearly resulted in the creation of a new commission to restrict the growth of charters in Detroit. Anti-charter attacks persist nationally and locally.

Currently, Michigan charter schools enroll about 150,000 students, about one-tenth of the state’s public school population, with larger shares served in Detroit and other urban centers. Charters’ more disadvantaged student bodies gain on average an extra two to three months of learning each year compared with their peers in traditional public schools, according to the best available research.

Support for the increasingly popular opportunity to enroll across school district lines is comparably strong: 62 percent versus 34 percent in opposition. Through the Schools of Choice program, most Michigan districts have embraced the option to accept out-of-district enrollments, with more than 180,000 students participating last year.

Most respondents to the Mackinac survey are content with the current range of opportunities to select schools beyond the traditional assignment approach. Statewide, 59 percent of respondents said Michigan has about the right amount of choice, while a quarter said more is needed. In the Motor City, though, where educational struggles are deep and well documented, 51 percent believe there isn’t enough choice. Only 35 percent of Detroiters are satisfied with available options.

One option not currently available in Michigan registered as the most appealing of all in the poll: tax credit scholarships, which served 225,000 students from 15 different states in 2015-16. Under these programs, an individual or business receives a tax bill write-off for donating funds to a nonprofit scholarship organization. Families then apply for needed tuition aid from one of these organizations to enroll in a private school of their choice.

Respondents backed tax credit scholarships by a 2-to-1 margin (57 percent to 29 percent). Follow-up questions revealed Michiganders recognize that certain students have challenges that might be addressed by increased educational choice. Three out of four respondents (77 percent) liked the idea of making tax-credit scholarships available to families with special needs students. Almost as many (70 percent) favored offering the scholarships to low-income families.

Unfortunately, an imposing barrier currently blocks the way to promising private school choice plans. Michigan’s exceptionally restrictive state Constitution denies even the neediest, most vulnerable families the opportunity to access such a program.

By a margin of 55 to 36 percent, Michiganders do not believe that educational choice harms traditional public schools. The wisdom of the crowd aligns with a compelling body of research. Thirty-one out of 33 gold standard studies find that competition from private school choice actually helps improve public school performance. The record is less overwhelming, but still strong, for the broad positive effects of public charter schools.

The broad support for some choice programs demonstrates not only a compassion for families who need new effective options, but also an ability to see through one of the opponents’ primary arguments.

Support for all kinds of educational choice within the Great Lakes State meets or exceeds national sentiment. A recently released poll from Education Next, a pro-school reform journal, shows similar results on nearly all questions.

When it comes to changing the playing field of K-12 education, most voters embrace the concept of choice. The challenge that lies ahead is translating that support and demand into new learning opportunities that help raise the bar for all Michigan students.