The Quiet Audacity of Michigan

I spent the Thanksgiving holiday in my home state of Michigan, where labor and public employee unions exhibit outsized-influence in the public square. If you want to know just how much influence, ask recalled Representative Paul Scott. But for all the union supremacy that could sound alarms on any expansion of school choice in the Wolverine State, the sweep of several education measures hasn’t drawn national headlines the way other reforms have in neighboring Midwestern states.

The policy debates within the state have tended to focus on the proposed increase of the cap on the number of charter schools, but this overlooks other bills that could have a profound effect on the number of quality educational options as well as on the way school boards govern public education.

One notable effort would expand dual enrollment in Michigan’s colleges and universities to high school students in private institutions, removing the requirement that those students would have to enroll first in a public school and calling for the state to pick up the tuition bill. But just as importantly, school districts would have to extend their information and counseling services on college enrollment options to private school students who want to participate.

This would clear what the Michigan Catholic Conference has called the “unnecessary hurdles” to all students who want an early start on their postsecondary studies, and the conference clearly has the urban poor at Catholic high schools in mind. A spokesman for the Michigan Education Association, however, has called the proposal a back-door voucher, and the Michigan School Boards Association wants to know what’s going to happen to its share of the state School Aid Fund.

The union and the school boards largely stayed silent on the plan until the bills passed their last committee by a 2-to-1 margin, mostly along party lines. This Democratic and union opposition adds to other legislative efforts in Michigan that could rightfully be labeled progressive, such as a move requiring public schools to open their doors to students from other districts as long as they have seats. Few outside the state have taken notice, but each initiative rethinks the way we govern public education through artificial boundaries.

Requiring districts to guide private school students on their dual-enrollment options would begin to redefine the governing role of school boards as answerable to parents, who become the primary customers here. Eliminating the boundaries dividing school districts can enable a student in Detroit to access an education in, say, Grosse Pointe, making the system truly public.

Teachers aren’t marching on Lansing yet, but Michigan is bringing audacity to a reform effort that rethinks the way we deliver a public education.

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BY Adam Emerson

Editor of redefinED, policy and communications guru for Florida education nonprofit