Michigan Legislator Attacks Choice, Wants Public Schools to Control Who Attends

From the files of “I’m glad s/he’s not my state legislator,” we turn to the state of Michigan — where lawmakers are considering a plan to give families greater choice through mandatory public school open enrollment. A recent Associated Press story highlights some of the outrageous rhetoric from the opposition:

State Rep. Timothy Bledsoe, a Democrat from Grosse Pointe, said he’s worried that a mandatory schools of choice program would be the “death blow” to local control of schools.

“If your school board cannot control its boundaries and who is allowed to attend your schools, there just isn’t much left that Lansing can’t determine,” Bledsoe said. “The school board is left to hire and fire the superintendent and that’s about it.”

A pretty silly argument all in all. Mandatory open enrollment essentially means no school can keep out students based on where they live, as long as there is a seat open and the school doesn’t have to create a special program or accommodation just for that student. Public school choice leader Colorado has mandatory open enrollment — one of the nation’s strongest open enrollment laws, in fact. In 2010-11, about 66,000 students attended a public school outside their district of residence (roughly 8 percent of the total public school population). And that doesn’t include students enrolled in a school outside their assignment zone but still within the same district.

In spite of all this, someone like Rep. Bledsoe may be surprised to learn that our state still has a strong tradition of “local control.” Or not. The good people at the Mackinac Center who brought my attention to his remarks said it well:

That’s right. Parents’ freedom to choose a better school for their kids is a “death blow” to public schools that can’t “control … who is allowed to attend….”

I wonder if Rep. Bledsoe thinks a child suffers a “death blow,” or perhaps something less severe, when he or she is assigned to a failing school, and the people who run the better public school down the street stand in the schoolhouse door to keep that child out.

My parents teach me to try not to judge people’s motives, but Rep. Bledsoe’s comment comes across as elitist — especially when you consider that he represents a wealthy district bordering the poor and struggling Detroit Public Schools. Many of the adults in the system find expanding choice to be inconvenient, probably because it helps create incentives for public schools to reform and improve their programs to best serve the students who choose to come through their doors. That means more work and that scary word: change.

Who should have more control over a child’s education: families or a bureaucratic system? Here’s hoping that in Michigan, good judgment about what’s best for students wins out over the forces that fear change.