Broader School Choice May Be Detroit's Best Hope


Broader School Choice May Be Detroit's Best Hope

Jan 31st, 2013 2 min read
Lindsey M. Burke, Ph.D.

Director, Center for Education Policy

Lindsey Burke researches and writes on federal and state education issues.

Detroit Public Schools has some of the lowest graduation rates in the country. Single-digit literacy levels plague the city's schools.

On the Trial Urban School District assessment, an evaluation of the nation's largest school districts by the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics, the problems facing the district's school system become shockingly clear: Just 3 percent of fourth-graders are on grade level in math; a mere 6 percent are proficient in reading.

While academic underperformance within the city's schools is breathtaking, it's worth noting that school districts throughout the state face their own shortcomings, just not on the same scale.

Even students in well-off Grosse Pointe and Ann Arbor schools have significant room for improvement compared to their international peers.

Researchers Jay Greene and Josh McGee note that "the average student in Ann Arbor, Michigan, home to the University of Michigan, is at the 58th percentile in math relative to students in other developed countries."

Parents across the state have good reason to demand more options.

So why this educational mediocrity, or, in the case of Detroit, outright failure?

Michigan schools have close to zero incentive to improve. Assignment-by-ZIP code policies — matching children to schools based on geography, as opposed to parents choosing schools based on their child's individual learning needs — means schools face very little competitive pressure to change. To do something different. To improve.

Children have no escape hatch from what the Obama administration has deemed "dropout factories," and are consigned to attending their government-assigned school unless their parents can afford to pay both the taxes to support the public system and private school tuition.

That's a bad deal for children in low-income neighborhoods, trapped in underperforming public schools.

Gov. Rick Snyder wants to give families a choice in where their children attend school and to put the type of competitive pressure on the public system that provides opportunity for all Michigan children.

Rightly so.

School choice has ledto improved academic outcomes, increased graduation rates, increased student safety, improved parental satisfaction with their child's academic and social development and satisfaction with their child's school overall, and allows parents to access educational options that meet their child's unique learning needs.

School choice also introduces competitive pressure on the public education system that lifts all boats, improving outcomes for students who exercise school choice as well as students who remain in public schools.

All of the positive benefits of school choice are being highlighted nationwide this week as part of the third annual National School Choice Week. It will be the world's largest-ever celebration of school choice, with events taking place in all 50 states.

National School Choice Week is under way to show the success of choice, as well as the need to expand options for every child.

In all, there will be some 3,600 events taking place across the country, including 2,500 events at schools, including public schools, private schools and magnet schools.

Public schools in Detroit have little incentive to improve. As long as children are assigned to the nearest school, those schools will continue to receive students and dollars regardless of how poorly they perform.

Choice changes that equation. It puts parents in the driver's seat and gives traditional public schools incentives to meet the needs of children.

-Lindsey Burke is the Will Skillman Fellow in Education Policy at The Heritage Foundation.

First appeared in The Detroit News.