Should parents be allowed greater freedom to choose which schools their children attend? In the past few years, the idea of "educational choice" has received an astonishing level of political, popular and intellectual support.
Since 1989, twenty states have adopted some form of it, nine of which allow choice across public school district lines. The 1991 Michigan Education Poll conducted for the State Board of Education found that 61 percent of Michiganians favor choice at least within their local district, and 62 percent actually favored including private schools in a choice system.
Advocates for choice have argued that by introducing competition into education, choice can generate more learning at lower cost. And it can serve as an antidote to the excessive bureaucratization and lack of responsiveness that characterize the present government school monopoly.
Numerous studies indicate that when choice is coupled with greater school autonomy, it has pronounced and positive effects on teachers, administrators, and the environment in which they work. These include higher levels of job satisfaction, more opportunities for personal growth and diversity, and tangible progress in the classroom.
Against this backdrop in 1991, the Michigan Legislature directed each one of the state's 563 school districts to draw up a plan to implement an in-district choice program for the 1992-93 school year. So, is it fair to assert that the positive effects of choice are now working wonders on Michigan education?
A new study from The Mackinac Center for Public Policy reveals the disappointing answer. It appears that the great majority of districts perceived the Legislature's mandate not as an opportunity for genuine innovation and experimentation, but rather as another burdensome requirement for which little or no funding was provided.
Most districts simply formalized existing (and often very limited) transfer policies with few changes. Virtually nonexistent were new strategies to deal with the constraint of limited seating, and any plans for providing parents with meaningful indicators of a school's educational effectiveness. Most Michigan parents have no more choice of schools now than they had before the Legislature acted. Educational choice in Michigan, for the moment at least, has fizzled.
Even if the public schools had taken on the choice assignment with vigor and commitment, however, the limited nature of the Legislature's intent would not have made much difference in educational performance. The fact is that public schools lack the kind of diversity that gives choice real meaning. That point was made clear in a remarkably candid brochure from the Alpena School District:
"Each elementary has a different building, a different teaching staff, and serves a different neighborhood. Beyond that, there are no substantive differences. Each runs on basically the same program, teaches the same curriculum, runs on the same schedule, offers the same basic dollars per pupil education. For Choice to be real, there must be a real difference among schools. Among Alpena Public's 10 elementaries, there is no real difference" (emphasis added).
The Wyoming District in Kent County stands out as being among the very few places in Michigan where public school authorities not only embrace the choice concept, but are energetically employing diversity within their district to make it meaningful. The district is emphasizing decentralized site-based management, a wide array of curricular offerings, and creative opportunities for parental involvement. Clearly, however, choice needs more of a boost than either current legislation or the good deeds of a very few innovators are providing.
A more promising, though radical, approach would be to reformulate state funding and tie it directly to the enrollment decisions of parents. In other words, let state aid automatically follow students to their schools of choice, including schools in neighboring districts. This one reform would do much to spur incentives for school improvement.
Additionally, the Legislature could expand the definition of a public school to include new school sponsors. It could encourage school boards to charter new schools in order to diversify a district's offerings and maximize the range of choices available. Teachers or even administrators could be empowered to set up such alternatives.
Ultimately, choice ought to embrace private schools as well. Changing the Michigan Constitution so as to permit parents with their state aid "vouchers" to send their children to either public or private schools would not only enhance healthy competition in the education business, but would probably generate a host of new schools too--creating the genuine diversity necessary for choice.
Employing all these options would require other measures to grant greater decision-making autonomy to public schools, assure access to education for the least advantaged, and prevent harmful state intrusions into the affairs of private schools. But these are problems that pale in comparison to the ones arising from today's failed monopoly.
Choice didn't fizzle in Michigan because it was tried and found wanting. It was tried in name only. It's time to get down to business and make it a reality.