The start of a new year often carries hope for a brighter future.Yet this hope is not shared by tens of thousands of students trapped in Detroit’s failing public school district. Despite the perennially appalling indications of low school quality in Detroit, the state Legislature has consistently failed to expand the number of charter schools, which provide a successful alternative for desperate students and parents.
Consider recent statistics on school quality. According to the fall 2006 and class of 2006 results, Detroit Public School students failed to score at the "proficient" level on 133,767 state tests in science, reading, mathematics and other subjects. That represents more than half of the Michigan Educational Assessment Program tests taken in Detroit.
Graduation rates are an equally depressing indicator: A Manhattan Institute study released last year estimated that just 42 percent of the DPS class of 2003 graduated from the city’s public high schools.
Perhaps a more revealing indicator of the quality of a school system is parental satisfaction. Parents and guardians who are unhappy with their children’s schools will vote with their feet. Remember that charter schools are public schools to which students have not been assigned by ZIP code, but which are chosen by parents as the best available educational environment for their children.
Last year, charter schools in Detroit enrolled more than one-fifth as many students as DPS, according to a report released late last year by the Michigan Department of Education. Based on a slightly different percentage, a September 2006 report from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools ranked Detroit fifth highest in the nation in charter school "market share." In fact, many charter schools have waiting lists; several received more calls than they could handle from parents during the illegal Detroit Federation of Teachers strike last fall.
This level of charter enrollment indicates dissatisfaction with the schools to which students in Detroit are assigned. The demand for charter schools in Detroit and many other areas is at least in part driven by the failure of many conventional public schools to provide children with safe, quality classrooms.
Unfortunately for Detroit’s parents, children and teachers, the number of available charter schools is limited in part by the statewide cap on university-chartered schools and the districtwide prohibition of new community college-chartered schools.
Many suburban schools accept some students from Detroit, but the number of kids admitted is low compared to the need. Furthermore, fewer and fewer independent and parochial schools are available, and tuition can be prohibitive. Until a full parental choice policy involving all schools — such as the Mackinac Center for Public Policy’s universal tuition tax credit — is implemented, parents will have only limited public school choices.
The paucity of options makes charters a politically viable way for parents to secure the education their children need. To increase parents’ charter options, a number of actions must be taken.
First, the new state Legislature should follow the lead of Detroit Democrat Rep. LaMar Lemmons Jr. in advocating for more charter schools in the district.
Second, Detroit’s education leaders must thwart tactics designed to obstruct opportunities for all students, such as the cynical actions exhibited by the Detroit Federation of Teachers when philanthropist Robert Thompson twice offered $200 million to establish new charter schools in the city. Despite union saber rattling, plans for one new Detroit high school chartered by Grand Valley State University are progressing. Other entrepreneurs should take advantage of the Michigan law that allows chartering authorities to establish 14 more charter high schools in the district.
Third, parents and community groups must play an important role in increasing support for charter schools. Parents can visit charter schools to see students’ progress firsthand and get feedback from teachers and students. They can also work to gain the support of local elected officials, neighborhood leaders and organizations.
Fourth, policymakers and education officials must resist the urge to add to charter schools the burden of further regulations concerning "quality." Quality is effectively addressed by the choices of education consumers — parents — and schools should not be hampered by more rules that limit how school leaders offer the educational services that parents desire.
Despite numerous impediments, charter schools are in high demand in Detroit. That demand should not be squelched by those who force children to attend failing public schools and thereby dim children’s chances for a bright future.
Ryan S. Olson is the director of education policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Deneen Borelli is a fellow with the black leadership network Project 21. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the authors and the Center are properly cited.