In the 1960s, Inkster enrolled nearly 5,000 students, supported a large marching band, and was home to many competitive sports teams. But by 1999, Inkster's enrollment had fallen to just 1,749 students. Inkster was in such dire financial shape that the district cancelled participation in spring sports in 1999. In addition, Inkster left its employees without health insurance for a time in 1999 because the district failed to pay its premiums on time. In addition, administrators and teachers were stunned to receive pink slips in May 1999, although many of them were recalled for the start of the new school year.36
The Inkster situation attracted national attention in U.S. News and World Report and Education Week after the Detroit Free Press and The Detroit News ran stories concerning the possible closure of the district's schools. Reports placed the blame for a financial crisis in the district at the feet of charter schools in Inkster and neighboring districts. All accounts asserted that Inkster was a "victim of competition."
Six charter schools have sprouted in Inkster or right on its border, enticing more than 500 students out of the district's schools. Inkster school-board member Rev. George Williams believes charter-school competition has hurt the district. "We know they're flooding us with charter schools, and the state knows it's not fair. But a little district like Inksterwho cares? You can close up, just split up the kids and send them to other schools." 37
One charter school that has attracted students from Inkster City School District is King Academy. Located in the heart of the city and mere blocks from district schools, King Academy opened its doors in September 1997 with 105 students and served 221 students in the 1998-99 school year.
King Academy believes that parental involvement is key to a child's success in the classroom. Principal Elmira Mosley emphasizes that parent-teacher cooperatives are very attractive to families who choose her school. King Academy even tries to bring parents into the classroom to teach for a day in an effort to increase their involvement.
Mosley expressed concern that area charter schools were being blamed for hurting the Inkster district, rather than being seen as the solution to long-standing deficiency in the quality of education Inkster offers. "I place the interests of students above the interests of schools," she stated.38
Evidence also suggests that Inkster is not a "victim of competition." Empirical data show Inkster was well down the road to closure before competition was introduced in the district. Chart 5 presents the enrollment trend for the Inkster school district between 1968 and 1994. No charter school or other choice program existed in Inkster before 1995. Inkster declined from 4,900 students in 1968 to around 2,223 in 1994-95, a total decline of 54 percent.
This 26-year enrollment decline demonstrates that families were leaving the Inkster school district long before the emergence of any formalized choice program. During this period of decline, parents were exercising "traditional school choice," whereby families moved residences to preferred communities or sent their children to private schools. Parents who were without the financial means to relocate or pay tuition at a private school resorted to "illegal school choice," whereby they falsely claimed residency in a school district in which they do not reside in order for their children to attend a school of their choice.
When parents have only the traditional optionsmove to a new neighborhood or cheat the systemalternatives to the local government school are primarily left to wealthy families who can afford to pay tuition at a private school. This is a cause of much economic segregation, as wealthier families congregate around desirable schools, leaving behind the less wealthy, who have no choices at all. This is what has happened in Inkster, where, today, 70 percent of all students are considered economically disadvantaged.39
Other factors have also contributed to the decline of Inkster: low student test scores, political instability on the Inkster school board, financial mismanagement, and racial tensions within the community. One source of unrest has been the fact that interim Superintendent Terry Boguth is the fifth person to lead the district in the last four years.40
If competition did not cause Inkster's woes, as the evidence suggests, did it speed up the process? Close examination reveals that Inkster's enrollment decline substantially slowed after the introduction of competition. Inkster first began to experience the effects of competition in the 1995-96 school year when the first charter school was established in the area. The public "schools-of-choice" program began to affect the district in the following year when barriers between districts were lowered and students were allowed to attend government schools outside Inkster's borders. Essentially, any enrollment loss before the 1995-96 school year arose from factors other than expanded choice.
In the years immediately preceding the introduction of competitionbetween 1991 and 1994Inkster lost 767 students (dropping from 2,975 students to 2,178 students). This translates to an average loss of 256 students per year. In the years between 1995 and 1998, Inkster enrollment declined by an average of 126 students per year (dropping from 2,171 students to 1,799 students). Hence, the charge that competition accelerated the decline of Inkster's student enrollment is false. In fact, the introduction of greater choice and competition correlates with a slowed rate of enrollment decline (chart 6 demonstrates this trend).
Yet journalists writing on the Inkster situation noted the number of charter schools in the area and the number of Inkster students attending them and implicitly assumed that if the charter school and "schools-of-choice" programs did not exist that those students would be enrolled in Inkster. But as the data demonstrate, this is not necessarily the case: Parents were choosing schools other than Inkster's long before choice programs existed.