Policy

In Michigan, More Poor Families Taking Refuge in Charter Schools

Doesn't stop public educators from claiming charters leave poor kids behind

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And you can't spell "economic illiteracy" without "con."

While we're all arguing about right-to-work in Michigan, there's also a little right-to-choose battle going on with their schools.

Earlier in the month, 71 school district superintendents signed a letter fretting about those disconcerting "untested and unproven" education reforms that don't yet have a "track record" like public schools do. This is meant to be a criticism of charter schools, not an endorsement, apparently. You can read here and marvel at their attempts to make charter schools look like a bad risk without providing any factual information to back up their fears.

But they do have one paragraph that made the nonpartisan, free-market friendly, Michigan-based Mackinac Center for Public Policy take note:

Instead, the choices we have created through market-based reform have produced cookie-cutter public school academies serving middle class students while creating a permanent underclass in our inner cities. Why? We believe that families struggling to maintain a roof over their head and food on their table simply do not have the resources to shop around for educational opportunity.

Have a good laugh at them criticizing charter schools as being "cookie-cutter." Beyond that irony, there's an actual factual claim in there—The old canard that school choice allows those middle class families to flee and deprive poor students of the better education. But does it check out? The Mackinac Center runs the numbers in their Michigan Capitol Confidential and discovers it doesn't. Not by a longshot:

But state of Michigan data for the 2011-2012 school year shows there is a higher percentage of free- and reduced-lunch eligible students in charter schools than in conventional public school districts. Charter schools had 69.8 percent of students on free- and reduced-lunch statewide while 46.2 percent of the students statewide in conventional public schools were on free- and reduced-lunch. That data is from the Center for Educational Performance and Information. Students qualify for free- and reduced-lunch based on their household income.

In response, one superintendent said they were referring to inner city poor kids. (that's an interesting racially-coded argument, isn't it?) Michigan Capitol Confidential drilled down to the data on just the school districts represented by the superintendents who signed the letter. The percentage of students in charter schools on free and reduced lunch was still higher than those in public schools.

In Detroit, the numbers were fairly similar – 78 percent for charter school students, 81 percent for public school students. Also of note: Only 7 percent of eighth-graders in Detroit's schools are rated as "proficient" in reading. The national average is 29 percent. In case any superintendent wants to invoke the "inner cities" argument again, the average for other large cities is 21 percent (pdf). Why any public school superintendent would actually want to invoke "track records" when arguing against charter schools is quite the mystery.