The public "schools-of-choice" program has had very limited impact on school districts, primarily because only those districts that wish to participate do so. The ability of districts to restrict competition severely limits the good it might otherwise do. Yet, the "schools-of-choice" program is important because it has increased educational options for some families.
A closer look at the Wayne RESA district of Highland Park provides greater insight as to how one district responded to increased competition through the public "schools-of-choice" program.
Highland Park: "Schools-of-Choice" Turn "Skimming" Argument Upside-Down
A small community surrounded by Detroit, Highland Park has experienced a substantial decline in enrollment over the course of the 1990s. In the 1993-94 school year, Highland Park had 5,112 students. But by 1997-98, the district's enrollment had fallen to only 3,629 students.
The largest decline in Highland Park enrollment occurred before the advent of public "schools-of-choice" legislation. In an interview, Superintendent John Stendt attributed the decrease in enrollment to changes in housing patterns and adult education laws, saying that charters have not yet had a significant impact on his district's enrollment.
In the fall of 1996, the Highland Park district created the Career Academy, a young adult education program. This program was designed to serve students from Highland Park and the surrounding area by attracting students through the public "schools-of-choice" option. Opening with 609 students, the academy concentrated on meeting the needs of high school dropouts by providing career assistance. Unlike other adult education programs, the Career Academy focuses on specific job-related training rather than high school equivalency, allowing students to earn employment-related skill certificates. Offerings include courses in nursing, computer information systems, computer repair, and automotive technology. These courses are open to any Wayne County resident aged 16-19 years old.33
Critics of competition in education often raise the argument that choice will allow some schools to "skim" the best students, leaving the worst behind. The Highland Park adult education program does the opposite: The "choosers" are students who have dropped out or been expelled from other districts, especially Detroit. Superintendent Stendt has not heard any complaints from Detroit or other districts which "lost" these students to Highland Park. He replied, "They didn't want those students anyway, so it was no great loss to them."34
The multi-year loss of students before 1996 encouraged Highland Park to consider what student needs were not being met within, and beyond, the district. In response, the district created a program that assists students in developing employment skills where they were previously neglected.
Superintendent Stendt also noted that the prospect of increased competition encouraged Highland Park to make program changes and to extend after-school programs in an effort to retain and attract students from neighboring school districts. "Everyone has gotten used to having choices. We don't have just three television networks, three automobile companies, or three types of ice cream," Stendt stated. "Competition has forced us to be more consumer-oriented."35
The experience of Highland Park is one example of how competition has improved opportunities for students. The Career Academy did not exist prior to the implementation of the public "schools-of-choice" legislation. It required increased competition to spur Highland Park to create a program that is meeting the needs of students who had been neglected under the previous system.