Over the past decade, the state of Michigan has laid some important groundwork for improving public education. The Legislature passed one of the nation's best charter-school laws and introduced a measure of competition by funding public schools according to the number of students a school is able to attract. An increase in the state sales tax from 4 to 6 percent made it possible for a homestead exemption from local millage, creating a more level playing field for less affluent districts.
But, by and large, public schooling in Michigan has failed to make any dramatic improvements.
Today, even though only six states spend more per pupil than does Michigan, scores for Michigan students on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) tests have remained stagnant in the last few years. In 1996, 72 percent of Michigan eighth-graders taking the test were not proficient in math. In 2000, that same 72 percent still were not proficient. In 1992, 74 percent of Michigan fourth-graders taking the NAEP were not proficient in reading. In 1998, over 70 percent still were not proficient.
Students across Michigan continue to graduate from high school without knowing the basics. A September 2000 study by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy revealed that Michigan businesses and institutions of higher learning spend more than $600 million per year to compensate for the lack of basic reading, writing, and arithmetic skills among high school graduates and employees.
This year, one in four Michigan public schools failed to meet the minimum academic goals required by our previous state superintendent. However, our new state superintendent and board of education have decided not to enforce established accreditation standards, which would take 900 of Michigan's 3,128 government-run schools off the accredited list. Gov. Engler called the state board and superintendent's decision an act of "cowardice."
Meanwhile, defenders of the educational status quo have been working overtime to hold school choice initiatives at bay. Half of Michigan public schools still refuse to participate in the state's public schools-of-choice program, which allows students the minimal freedom to attend school in an adjoining district. Currently, only 283 of Michigan's 554 school districts participate. Another 165 districts have created their own choice programs, but many of those place severe restrictions on the number of students who can participate. That leaves over 100 districts that offer no choice whatsoever. The result: Only 1.5 percent of Michigan students are able to take advantage of even a minimal level of public school choice.
Michigan's charter school efforts did enjoy some early success, but have now run into a brick wall. The state cap of 150 university-authorized charter schools was reached in 1999. During the 2000-01 school year, 3.4 percent of Michigan public school students were enrolled in charter schools. And even though Michigan citizens clearly want more charter schools, as evidenced by huge enrollment waiting lists and applications for new charters, the Michigan Education Association's lobbying efforts have ensured efforts to raise the cap have failed in the Legislature.
Choices in education largely remain to only those who can afford it. Nevertheless, despite the financial and personal sacrifice required, Michigan parents of all socioeconomic backgrounds are turning to home schooling in record numbers. The National Home Education Research Institute estimates that nationwide, the number of home-schoolers is growing at a rate of 7 to 15 percent per year. Brian Ray, president of the National Home Education Research Institute in Salem, Ore., estimates there are currently 70,000 to 95,000 students in Michigan who are educated at home, or approximately 5 percent of Michigan's public school enrollment.
In short, the only reason Michigan public education is improving at all is because legislators have pushed through limited reforms such as charter schools and schools-of-choice over opposition from an education establishment that digs in its heels at every turn.
Surely we can do better. Michigan citizens must understand that the future of dramatic improvements in public education is in jeopardy. Without the implementation of greater choice and competition, public education will remain in the quagmire of mediocrity, at best. The sooner legislators realize this, the sooner we will be on our way toward fulfilling the promise of a quality education for every child in Michigan.
(Erich Heidenreich, DDS, an adjunct scholar with the Midland-based Mackinac Center for Public Policy, is founder and president of Marshall Academy, a charter school in Marshall, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliations are cited.)