(Editor’s note: This commentary originally appeared in the Battle Creek Enquirer on Nov. 27, 2013.
In its Nov. 23 editorial (“Charters, choice are strangling our public schools”), the Battle Creek Enquirer insinuated that charter schools are not public schools and that allowing students and parents to choose among schools is “doing immeasurable harm to our democracy.”
The claims in the editorial were contorted or simply untrue. Charter public schools enroll more disadvantaged students than conventional schools, and are posting better student outcomes.
But more disturbing is the notion that parents should not be able to choose where their children go to school. A system of educational choice is by definition democratic: Parents are voting with their feet when they take their children to a school that can better serve their needs.
And these parents are choosing public schools that provide a better education. A 1999 MSU study found that students using Schools of Choice attend districts with higher graduation rates and higher test scores and choose districts that pay teachers more while minimizing other costs. Using the MSU methodology, the Mackinac Center found that students are making these same choices, more than a decade later.
Charter schools also appear to be a better choice. The most comprehensive study of Michigan charter schools to date is a 2013 study by Stanford University’s Center for Research and Educational Outcomes. CREDO found that Michigan charter school students were learning two months more of material per year compared to their conventional public school peers. Most heartening was the finding that the benefit was the greatest for low-income students.
Unfortunately, the Enquirer instead cited a 2009 CREDO study — which did not include Michigan — and a response to the 2013 study from the union-funded National Education Policy Center. It would have been impossible for the Enquirer to actually cite the 2013 CREDO study itself to support the editorial’s premise, because the study stated unequivocally that charter schools were producing better results.
The CREDO study authors wrote that “…students in Michigan charter schools make larger learning gains in both reading and mathematics,” and note that “These findings position Michigan among the highest performing charter school states CREDO has studied to date.”
Though the Enquirer’s editorial suggested that “[people who believe] that the profit model is more effective than traditional public schools… are either uninformed or unwilling to look at facts,” the opposite may in fact be true.
The 2013 CREDO study examined the outcomes at charter schools run by Education Management Organizations, which are typically associated with for-profit management companies. CREDO found that Michigan charter students at EMO schools posted greater educational gains than those at non-EMO schools.
For a concrete example, look at Highland Park. In the summer of 2012, the conventional district was spending $20,000 per student, and was in academic collapse. That fall, a for-profit management company stepped in. After the first year, the schools are clean and students are posting large academic gains.
Michigan’s system of educational choice has also fostered innovation in some conventional school districts. Administrators in Berrien Springs saw that districts were dropping alternative education programs, and grew to serve that need, even opening an alternative education program in Battle Creek that serves more than 275 at-risk high school students.
Berrien Springs’ alternative education offerings are possible because of Michigan’s public school choice system. Students aren’t forced into these programs — they are entering them voluntarily because their needs aren’t being met by their resident district.
While it is unfortunate that Albion High School closed, the closure was not an “inexcusable failure of the state.” It was the result of almost 700 Albion resident students — and their parents — choosing other public schools. The failure was Albion’s inability to respond to the increasing exodus of students.
Thankfully, Michigan’s educational system gave those students a choice. Hundreds of Albion students left for districts like Springport, Concord, Homer and Mar Lee. In comparison, almost no students who live outside Albion boundaries choose to attend Albion schools.
Our focus should be on educational outcomes, not the preferred administrative organization of schools. Any school that can effectively meet the needs of struggling Michigan students is a successful school, and one that should be celebrated.
Audrey Spalding is director of education policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich.