For many years, Michigan schools have tried in many and varied ways to improve student performance across the education spectrum. Based on the experience in most of the state’s urban school districts, there is little evidence that the decades of reform efforts have paid off. But the anticipated Michigan schools-of-choice legislation promises to be an effective mechanism that takes the concept of successful schools to a new level.
The proposed Michigan Public Education Finance Act would replace the School Aid Act of 1979. More than that, it would change how K-12 learning takes place in profound ways. Not the least of which is that students would be allowed to choose to be educated in any public district with an open-enrollment policy. This would be the epitome of “access to opportunity.”
The potential benefits of parents being able to see their children educated in stimulating, orderly, vigorous schools are substantial.
The possibilities from remarkable and innovative administrators breaking from traditional theories about education to adopt choice models are endless. Given autonomy, authority and flexibility to develop curriculum and select instructional supplies, for example, schools could be organized around a variety of themes and philosophies. Each school could have its own distinctive style. Parents could select a quality school that conforms to their interests – students their abilities.
Some specialties might include performing arts, liberal arts, computer science, engineering, aerodynamics, math immersion and other technologies. The legislation already envisions a limited number of cyberschools to provide an alternative to traditional school districts through online learning.
Parents gain enormous power – not the least of which is the sense of ownership and the ability to put underperforming schools out of business. Since per-pupil funding would follow students to the district of their choice, mediocre schools would no longer be guaranteed a pool of students and compelled to be more accountable. The educational level of the entire school system as a whole should improve. And there’s no downside to closing under-achieving schools.
School systems, for parochial reasons, have seen fit to take authority out of schools and centralize it in a bureaucratic nightmare. However, if more power is given to choice-motivated schools, the forces of competition could replace the stifling monopoly.
Choice schools could identify and hire the best administrators and teachers. Teachers could share in the decision-making, allowing for the development of a staff bonded by a common vision and commitment to the district’s educational philosophy.
Expect a gnashing of teeth, marching, demonstrating and vocal opposition to choice from teacher unions and school bureaucrats intimidated by and fearful of change. Critics will complain that schools in the urban core would simply be unable to compete and destined to close. They also claim that some parents aren’t equipped to effectively choose the best schools and their children will be trapped…that choice will destroy the public school system.
But teachers who are confident of their abilities have nothing to fear from choice. Indeed, since state money will follow the students, many schools will benefit from an attractive product. And a better-functioning system would enhance public support and thus better working conditions.
Equally important is that new teacher enthusiasm and student performance gains can be accomplished without more state spending or changes in district financing. With education organized as it is today, school bureaucrats prop-up education systems with more money and then try to juggle how those dollars are used without having an end product in mind.
The merits of choice are too numerous and too well documented for Lansing to delay in pushing through what appears to be a sensible and clear path to school reform. It involves no great revolution in urban areas since charter schools are already growing in popularity. And high performing suburban schools can opt in or out.
Choice is no panacea. But because it builds on well-established principles of accountability, Michigan lawmakers must give choice a chance.
Bill Johnson is founder of Bill Johnson Group, a public affairs, public relations and media consulting firm. The former Wayne County administrator is an award-winning journalist who formerly worked for The Detroit News and Detroit area broadcast news organizations.