Commentary

Fewer Parents Taking Education for Granted

Surveys highlight growing involvement, diverse goals

Blaming apathetic parents for student struggles is an established pastime in some professional education circles. While this is a real concern in some cases, we shouldn't be content with preserving a system built on assuming parental apathy is widespread. Michigan should work to harness, rather than belittle, parental involvement.

A new national survey from EdChoice picked up the hopeful trend. In just the past two years, substantially more parents say they are taking active roles and making sacrifices to ensure their children receive a desired educational experience. The share of parents who have changed or added jobs to support their children's K-12 education has nearly doubled in that time — to 30 and 40 percent, respectively.

Growing numbers also have turned to either family and friends or paid services to help provide child care or transportation to accommodate their child's schooling. Most notably, the rate of parents who pay for their child to be taken to or from school has risen from 15 to 32 percent. Giving parents in financial need the means to provide the same transportation opportunities might make that percentage even higher.

Educational choice programs enable families to find effective learning options with less need to make disruptive changes in employment or residence. The share of Michigan parents accessing charter schools and districts outside where they live continues to grow, nearing one in four of the state's public school students take advantage of these options. But we haven't come close to realizing the full benefits of choice.

Parents appear to be more inclined to take advantage of different educational options when more of them are readily available. EdChoice further found that many parents prefer a different type of schooling than the one they are currently using. For instance, four in 10 respondents listed private education as their first choice, though only a quarter of that number actually enroll their kids in a private school. Ten percent want to homeschool, but only 3 percent do. The reasons parents choose different options vary widely among and within school types, though the desire for a better quality education ranked highly in all cases.

Try to nail down what educational success means, and you won't find a consensus answer. In a recent Walton Family Foundation survey of millennial parents, 35 percent said the main purpose of K-12 education was to prepare students for further education. Fewer pointed to workforce preparation, social skills or civic involvement as the primary goal.

Rather than try to manufacture a narrow system that cannot possibly tailor to everybody, policymakers should seek to create the conditions for different innovative pathways to spring up from the ground level. The younger parents in the Walton survey said they expect a lot from their children's schooling experience, but they also offered a wide range of views of what the ideal looks like.

These discoveries resonate with a recent finding in our own state. In a statewide poll the Mackinac Center commissioned earlier this year, 83 percent of Michigan's young adult (18-34) demographic favored the creation of education savings accounts that would give families debit card-like power to personalize a child's education. The total favorability in the Mackinac Center's summertime statewide poll was 59 percent.

Though it's easy to focus on the challenges and disappointments of the political moment, the future is bright for maximizing educational opportunities in Michigan. More parents are making serious accommodations to support their children's education, and more young families want the power to chart their own unique educational destiny. These are not trends to be taken lightly.