Guest Column

Unregulated school choice is harming Michigan

December 5, 2014
| By Lou Glazer |
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As I have mentioned previously, Michigan has lousy K-12 student outcomes and is making little — if any — progress. That’s a recipe for long-term economic decline.

The state with the best student outcomes is Massachusetts. Massachusetts’ K-12 policy was put in place in the early 1990s on a bi-partisan basis and has continued without much change since.

The United States Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s “Leaders & Laggards: A State-by-State Report Card on Educational Effectiveness” gives Michigan an overall grade of D. It gets a D for academic achievement and an F for academic achievement low income/minorities.

Maybe even more concerning is that the report gives Michigan an F in both categories for progress since 2007.

The Leaders and Laggards report gives Massachusetts an overall grade of A, as well as an A for academic achievement and an A for academic achievement low income/minorities. In terms of progress since 2007, the report gives Massachusetts a B for academic achievement and an A for academic achievement low income/minorities.

The bottom line: the Massachusetts approach has worked; Michigan's hasn't.

So how has Massachusetts earned the nation's best student achievement?

Here are some of the Bay State’s strategies:

  • Setting rigorous standards for all kids and not lowering those standards when kids had trouble meeting them.
  • Testing aligned with those rigorous standards.
  • Developing teachers who are prepared to teach all kids those standards.
  • State funding that provides more resources for poor kids.
  • A limited number of charters that must meet rigorous quality standards to be able to operate (open, stay open and replicate) in the state.

Michigan, of course, has gone in a completely different direction. We have been ambiguous at best about rigorous standards and aligned tests. We have not invested in developing educators to teach rigorous standards. We have moved away from preferential state funding for low-income students.

Instead, we have relied on parental choice as the prime lever to drive student achievement, which has culminated in the elimination of the cap on charters without any quality standards.

Concerns with Michigan charter policy are well articulated in a recent post by Robin Lake, director of the nonpartisan Center for Reinventing Public Education, an organization that is supportive of charter schools. Its funders include many of the big national pro-charter foundations, including The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Michael and Susan Dell Foundation and Walton Family Foundation.

Lake’s post, entitled “A Tale of Two (Charter) Cities,” is about the consequences of Michigan charter policy on students in the city of Detroit. It is the epicenter in Michigan (if not the country) of the consequences from unlimited charters. She writes:

“This National School Choice Week, when I inevitably read celebrations online of choice as an end in itself, I will think of my trip to Detroit, where, as in some other cities, an unregulated marketplace is undoubtedly hurting the families who need choice most.

“So let’s celebrate school choice, but let’s also be as outraged about its shortcomings as we are about failing districts. Unregulated school choice is a nightmare for parents and very difficult to fix.”

Massachusetts has taken a completely different approach to charter schools. As EdTrust-Midwest describes in its Massachusetts fact sheet, the state's approach to charter schools is: “In the early 1990s, Massachusetts leaders decided to open the state’s first charter schools — on a hugely important condition: Accountability for both opening and for expansion would be strong. This included intentional, regulated high-quality charter school creation with high standards, strong accountability, and a state-guided quality authorizing process.”

Seems like it’s time for Michigan to move away from unregulated school choice and to learn from the state with the highest student achievement in the country. The path Massachusetts has taken to the nation’s highest student achievement starts with rigorous and stable standards for all students. And then it provides all schools with the resources needed to succeed and holds them accountable when they don’t.

Lou Glazer is president of Michigan Future Inc.

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