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Guest column: Choice proposal bets on market forces

By Brendan Walsh

The Oxford Foundation’s proposal on school choice made landfall last week full of sound and fury – and igniting a bit more. But what does it truly signify?

It delivers “student choice” in spades and that has the education reform movement rejoicing. Reaction from the incumbent establishment was predictable. “The deeply flawed plan would end public education as we know it,” warned Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer.

The philosophical debate is ever alluring, but let’s get grounded on the issue. What’s broken and how should that get fixed? Gov. Rick Snyder has some strong opinions.

To him the state’s return on its “P-20” education investment is measurable by college attainment, the percentage of citizens earning a degree. The U.S. Department of Education reports Michigan’s 37.2 percent among citizens aged 25 to 34 is below the national average (39.3 percent) and ranks 30th among the states.

The story is worse when we consider that Michigan ranks eighth highest nationally in total state and local education expenditure per $1,000 of personal income, according to National Education Association reports. We’re spending proportionally more than most and getting worse results. Not good.

To meet nationally stated goals, Michigan would need to double the number of college graduates – a dramatic goal that would require some dramatic changes.

The debate about whether this proposal is a voucher system or if it spells doom for public education as we know it misses the point. Would this policy realistically contribute to doubling Michigan’s volume of college graduates?

Michigan is already “choice friendly.” Charter schools have been uncapped, and still less than 10 percent of Michigan’s K-12 market (students) participate in choice. The Oxford proposal could drive more students to charters, but cyberschools appear to be the most likely beneficiaries. After all, it’s not very practical for students to travel around the state from class to class.

Even if it is effective in generating demand for online courses, will they be twice as effective in producing college graduates?

The Brown University Annenberg Institute for School Reform would say no. Their research suggests “combining GPA with the number of course failures in ninth grade gives a highly accurate predictor of high school graduation. The key indicators for GPA and course failures, in turn, are attendance and effort … strong attendance and effort depended on high levels of teacher monitoring and teacher support for challenging course content.”

If the researchers at Brown are wrong and online courses do a better job than traditional classroom instruction, then public education as we know it deserves to be driven out of existence.

Local schools have tremendous assets, but they had better hone their value propositions. The proposal is disruptive -- which is the point -- but local school districts are likely to continue to dominate market share.

But the Oxford proposal will present other challenges. Let’s recall there’s two ways for Michigan to improve its educational ROI: keep costs flat and increase college attainment, or reduce investment even with no gains in college attainment.

The Oxford plan calls for a change in how enrollment is calculated and odds are good a new model will result in lower costs for the state. It also requires that providers of all types demonstrate student “growth” [on standardized tests] or their funding will be deducted for the “proportional foundation allowance … for pupils who did not achieve the required performance.”

If you don’t deliver, you won’t get paid. Even if cyberschools experience massive market share gains, if they don’t deliver, they, too, will suffer financial consequences and this proposal will have failed.

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Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission. If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact David Zeman. Click here for details and submission guidelines.

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