Educational choice makes education about what’s best for kids, not what’s best for the adults who run the schools.
By JOHN C. MOZENA
What They Said:
Lesley Stahl: Have the public schools in Michigan gotten better?
Betsy DeVos: I don’t know. Overall, I — I can’t say overall that they have all gotten better.
Lesley Stahl: The whole state is not doing well.
Betsy DeVos: Well, there are certainly lots of pockets where this — the students are doing well and …
Lesley Stahl: No, but your argument that if you take funds away that the schools will get better, is not working in Michigan where you had a huge impact and influence over the direction of the school system here.
“60 Minutes” host Lesley Stahl and U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, March 11
What Should Be Said:
School choice doesn’t cause failing public schools; it only takes root where public schools are already failing their students.
When a community’s public schools are good, parents don’t send their children someplace else. In Michigan and elsewhere, parents turn to school choice when local schools aren’t an acceptable option for their children.
Lesley Stahl asked Secretary DeVos, “Have the public schools in Michigan gotten better?” The real question she should have asked is, “Are Michigan’s kids better off thanks to school choice?” If she’d asked that question of the people who know best — their parents — the answer would have been emphatically, “Yes.”
In a recent survey of Michigan parents who have exercised some form of school choice, 80 percent gave the school they’ve chosen for their child an “A” or “B” grade. Two-thirds said the school gives them higher expectations for their child’s educational future than they would have had otherwise, and roughly 60 percent would recommend school choice to other parents while only 16 percent would not. That’s a resounding endorsement of school choice in Michigan by the people who know best and care the most, and it’s in large part a reaction to the terrible failures of the school systems they’re leaving behind.
“A National Disgrace”
The expansion of educational choice in Michigan was a reaction to unprecedented dysfunction in traditional school districts and intended to save children from the consequences of bad decisions by the adults in charge of their schools. The worst of these decisions and consequences were in Detroit, where the public schools became nationally famous for their near-total dysfunction years before charter schools expanded there.
For instance, in 2007, fewer than a quarter of Detroit’s school children were graduating from high school. Two years later, in 2009, students in Detroit Public Schools were tested as part of the National Assessment on Educational Progress.
The test results weren’t just the worst in the country that year; they were the worst ever and barely showed any education happening at all.
“There is no jurisdiction of any kind, at any level, at any time in the 30-year history of NAEP that has ever registered such low numbers. They are barely above what one would expect simply by chance, as if the kids simply guessed at the answers,” Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council on Great City Schools, told Crain’s Detroit Business at the time.
Casserly was blunt in his assessment of who was to blame and what should be done: “Only a complete overhaul of this school system and how these students are taught ought to be permitted at this point because the results, to our minds, represent a complete breakdown and failure of the grownups who have been running the schools in this city.”
This mindset was shared by Obama Administration education secretary Arne Duncan, who that same year labeled Detroit “a national disgrace” and suggested that the city’s mayor take over the school district from its elected board.
Despite the mounting evidence and national attention, efforts to reform Detroit Public Schools stalled in the face of entrenched opposition from the very same people whom Casserly had called out as “the grownups who have been running the schools,” including unions and local elected officials.
Emergency financial managers appointed by both Democrat and Republican governors failed to keep the school district from sliding into bankruptcy, although they did uncover widespread corruption along the way. Notably, a 2009 audit requiring employees to pick up their pay stubs in person uncovered 257 fraudulent “ghost employees” costing the district a total of $208,000 per pay period. A federal corruption investigation over the next few years would convict 13 Detroit school principals and an assistant superintendent for stealing money that should have gone to classrooms.
With no true hope in sight for near-term reform in Detroit Public Schools or other failing traditional school districts in cities like Flint or Saginaw, the state’s cap on new charter schools was lifted in 2011 — two years after Detroit was labeled “a national disgrace.” While traditional school advocates would have you believe charters have since taken over education in Michigan, six school years later fewer than one in 10 public school students in the state attends a charter school. More attend competitive “magnet schools” within their own school districts, and many more participate in the state’s “Schools of Choice” program that allows parents to send their children to traditional public school districts in neighboring communities.
This means most school choice in Michigan isn’t between traditional district schools and charter schools, but rather between schools in neighboring school districts that compete to make themselves attractive to parents who finally have a choice. Through this competition, these public schools are, to answer Lesley Stahl’s question, “getting better” for their students thanks to school choice.
Kids, Not Systems
Education should be about the child and it should be focused on what’s best for that individual child. That’s why it’s important to start with the basic truth that every kid in a charter school, magnet school, School of Choice or other educational choice option is there because their parent or guardian made the decision to try something different and better with that child’s education. Limiting school choice would mean taking those choices away from parents and putting them back in the hands of bureaucrats and politicians.
Educational choice makes education about what’s best for kids, not what’s best for the adults who run the schools. That’s what’s gotten better in Michigan, and that’s what should be said.
John C. Mozena is a communicator working to spread liberty and free markets. He has been a vice president at a free-market think tank, spent two decades in a variety of private-sector marketing and communications roles and began his career as a newspaper reporter and editor covering health care policy. Follow him on Twitter or visit his website.
What Should Be Said shows effective ways of communicating freedom principles by using a storytelling approach, taking the moral high ground, and staying hopeful and aspirational. Media, politicians and thought leaders often fail to include the freedom perspective at all by omitting critical facts. Alternatively, when they do make a sincere attempt to sell the freedom philosophy, they often do so with a stale and defensive approach that is missing stories that humanize the dry facts and figures. Here we show examples of how storytelling and emotionally compelling changes in message will make all the difference for those trying to advocate for liberty.