Michigan is three years into a decade-long strategy to improve its schools. The plan values the notion that parents should have choices beyond traditional public schools. Twenty-five years ago, Michigan took a key step towards ensuring that sense of choice.
Diana Scott travelled a long way through dicey Michigan weather to brag about her school climate. She coordinates the Iron Mountain Homeschool Partnership. It’s a co-op that works with that city’s school district to provide online elective courses.
Scott came more than 400 miles to make a presentation in Lansing.
Turns out, there’s a healthy demand for virtual classes in the relative isolation of the Upper Peninsula.
“We were pleasantly surprised when we had as many students throughout the community come in and say, hey, we really need what you're offering,” she says.
Scott and a handful of others came to the Capitol for National School Choice Week. The concept of “school choice” covers a lot of alternatives to traditional public education, from magnets to parochial programs, virtual classes and home schooling.
“School choice overwhelmingly has been shown to be a benefit to the schools, not just where students take their choice and attend but also to the schools around them,” says Ben DeGrow, education policy director for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. “And by focusing on what serves individual students needs first, I think it can help us create a better overall education.”
This year’s National School Choice Week coincided with a milestone for Michigan education.
In January 1994, then-Governor John Engler signed charter schools into existence in the Great Lakes State.
“We're 25 years into what a lot of people deemed an experiment,” says Craig Thiel with the Citizens Research Council of Michigan.
Charter schools enjoy more autonomy than traditional public schools. An authorizer -- usually a school district or a university -- oversees its charter, the contract outlining its academic goals.
And, a charter school is a market-driven enterprise.
“The idea being that competition for those students for those dollars will lead school districts or even charters to improve their game in hopes of recruiting students, recruiting families, and therefore those dollars to operate,” says Thiel.
Michigan wasn’t the first state to allow charter schools; that was Minnesota, back in 1991. But Michigan’s political climate has historically offered fertile ground for them to grow. The state lifted its cap on charter schools in 2011.
Today, there are nearly 300 charter schools in Michigan.
“In Michigan, we have some of the most lenient and generous charter school regulations across the country,” says Michigan Education Association president Paula Herbart.
The MEA is the state’s largest teachers’ union. Herbart says while a few charter schools are run by school systems and universities, 87 percent are managed by for-profit entities.
“Which means billions and billions of dollars are going into the for profit entities who send those public dollars to private shareholders in the company,” says Herbart.
Herbart’s takeaway for parents mulling over a charter school option?
Let the buyer beware.
“What you want to make sure is, who are they answering to when they're talking about your child's achievement, where the money's going to how we're using those dollars to impact real student achievement,” she says.
Every Michigan public school student has their own individual funding allocation. When it comes to choice, the Mackinac Center’s Ben DeGrow believes funding should be driven by what best serves the student, wherever they decide to go.
“So, if we have policy conversations about how to do that in a way that continues to preserve the best range of options for all students, then I think that's a good conversation,” says DeGrow.
There’s mixed data on the effectiveness of Michigan’s charter schools. Educators are reluctant to make a blanket statement attesting to the superiority of charters versus traditional schools. But, say many teachers, having parents who are strongly committed to their child’s education is a common ingredient in the recipe of any successful school.