Michigan Eliminates Dunce Cap on Charter Schools

December 15, 2011

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The Michigan legislature has voted to eliminate caps on charter schools. This has been a long, hard-fought victory for parental choice supporters.

Over a decade ago, I wrote a study for Mackinac looking at public choice policies in Michigan, focusing on the Detroit area. It proved to be an interesting project. I interviewed a number of suburban superintendents, and they laid out a pattern whereby districts began participating in open enrollment once they felt an enrollment pinch from charter schools. District participation in open enrollment then put pressure on neighboring districts to participate, and so it started a bit of a domino effect.

I’ll never forget interviewing a superintendent from an elite inner-ring suburban district who told me quite boldly that in his district, private schools constituted his true competition, and that he wasn’t worried about charter schools or open enrollment. When I asked him why his district chose not to make seats available through open enrollment, he paused and thoughtfully said “I think the feeling historically around here has been that we have a good thing going on, and there has been a desire to keep the unwashed masses out.”

I appreciated his honesty, but I found myself stunned nevertheless. I mean there was no way to see this statement in some sort of racial context.

Personally, I am very happy that the cap has been lifted on charter schools in Michigan. I hope that the day will come when complacent check-book choice districts might reconsider their decision not to admit students whose parents happen not to be able to afford a $400,000 mortgage. Likewise I hope that increased competition will result in closure of some poorly performing charter schools.

The only sad note is that Michigan’s Blaine amendment will continue to prevent any sort of private school choice, and that Catholic schools in Detroit, which have already been disappearing, may very well go extinct entirely, perhaps along with other private schools. Catholic schools can survive, but the outlook in Detroit is grim indeed. These schools stood as nearly the only high quality options in a once great city for many decades, and is a pity to lose them. If anyone is ever going to develop new¬†low-cost high quality private school models, Detroit seems likely to be a greenfield in the future.

The bigger picture however is that Michigan parents will be gaining new school options. Hopefully the Michigan legislature will continue to pursue additional measures to improve K-12 education outcomes in addition to choice, but today the are to be congratulated for this important step.