School Choice Week Puts Michigan Progress in Perspective

Choice popular with parents, still needs vigorous defense

For the eighth straight year, National School Choice Week shines a light through the midwinter gloom by bringing people together to celebrate the importance of providing students and families with a wide variety of educational options. The stretch of January 21-27, 2018, is slated to feature more than 32,000 National School Choice Week events across the nation, including a Tuesday celebration in the Michigan Capitol rotunda that still has room for those who wish to attend.

While the fight for educational choice rages on, Michigan parents still await a major breakthrough. Choice-friendly Secretary DeVos is nearing a full year as the nation's education chief. Yet the turmoil of D.C. and Lansing politics has left it unsettled whether meaningful federal action might create new opportunities for Michigan families.

But the positive trends highlighted in last year's School Choice Week reflections continue, as the Mackinac Center plays a leading role in pushing back against attacks on expanded education opportunities. Here are the results in state:

  • Thousands of Michigan families are voting for choice – with their feet. In 2017 we found again that nearly one-fourth of Michigan public school students are exercising some form of choice – by crossing district lines or attending a public charter school. A Mackinac Center survey identified high levels of satisfaction among parents participating in choice programs, and parents listed a wide variety of reasons for making their choice, including academic, safety and other motivations.
  • Attacks on school choice in Michigan aren't new, but DeVos's national emergence has intensified both attacks and the need for defending parents’ right to choose. No anti-choice attack had a higher profile than a New York Times hit piece that the Mackinac Center thoroughly refuted. Closer to home, the Detroit Free Press thought it had finally found some quality research from Stanford University's CREDO that would tarnish Michigan charters' academic performance record, but a closer look found exactly the opposite. The latest allegation is that charter schools increase racial segregation, even though Michigan's current choice options disproportionately benefit African-American students. (Perhaps the best response to the bogus line of attack is this new Choice Media video.)
  • State officials have a chance to learn from missteps going after online learning options that have worked very well for some families. Early in 2017 Gov. Rick Snyder and others were unsuccessful in their misguided attempts to cut cyberschool funding. Not only did this proposal fail the math test, it also ignored the real ways in which online education has been a "lifesaver" for some families and can dramatically turn things around for students with unique needs and challenges.
  • New movies powerfully tell of need for greater choice. While public school choice remains robust in our state, a new Pioneer Institute documentary reminds us how many Michigan families have to sacrifice in order to choose private education options that work for them. The 2017 documentary School, Inc., from the late Andrew Coulson, took viewers on a fun, global journey with penetrating insights into how empowering parents with genuine alternatives can drive needed innovations in education, as other sectors have shown. If you haven't seen Coulson's movie yet, make 2018 the year you do.

This National School Choice Week our state has reason to celebrate progress gained in the popularity and success of choice. But much work remains to be done to provide families access to the full range of education options.

Public education is about educating the public, by whatever means of learning helps an individual student reach that goal. The National School Choice Week celebration is a perfect time for Michigan leaders to embrace that vision and the call Secretary DeVos urged at the Acton Institute's October gala in Grand Rapids: “Instead of dividing the public when it comes to education, the focus should be on the ends, not the means. Adults should stop fighting over students, and start fighting for students.”