Thousands of students switch public schools under choice law

But programs let districts do the choosing

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In 1996, the state of Michigan made it easier for parents to choose their child's school from among those in their own and neighboring public school districts. Previously, parents wanting to send their children to schools other than their assigned district school were typically forced to obtain permission from the assigned district in order to avoid paying tuition to the desired district.

For participating districts, the law now allows students to transfer between public schools in the same local district, to public schools in the same intermediate school district, or to public schools in contiguous intermediate districts without paying tuition, provided the desired district has space.

The number of students exercising public school choice is increasing; however, the number involved in the schools-of-choice program is limited because districts control whether or not they participate.

Although the law doesn't explicitly limit the number of students who can leave a district to attend schools outside their district boundaries, intermediate school districts often strictly limit the number of students they enroll from outside neighborhoods. Intermediate school district conglomerates may "opt out" of certain provisions in the state's public school choice plan and create their own choice programs that are actually aimed at curtailing the level of choice. Although the law encourages more choice than ever, choice remains elusive for many students.

According to the Michigan Department of Education, 283 out of 554 districts participate in Michigan's state schools-of-choice plan, and another 165 districts have adopted their own plans, offering very limited forms of choice. More than 100 districts do not permit choice. Overall, the number of students participating statewide in the choice program has grown from 5,611 in the 1996-1997 school year to 26,025 in 2000-2001, a small percentage of the 1.7 million K-12 public school population in Michigan.

Districts such as the Genesee and Kent Intermediate School Districts have created their own choice programs, allowing very few students to choose the school in which they enroll. The programs allow students' assigned districts to deny or grant permission each year for that student to attend his or her school-of-choice.

If the district denies permission for a student to leave, the student faces the same dilemma he or she would have faced before the new choice program began - they must pay tuition to the district of their choice or stay in their assigned district.

A report by the Flint Journal stated that in Genesee County these restrictions allowed only 2 percent of the district's students to participate in the schools-of-choice program. Kent permits even less choice.

Scott Jenkins, policy coordinator for the State Government Affairs Division, a branch of the executive office of Gov. John Engler told the Flint Journal the Genesee plan is one of the most restrictive in the state.

"It's not anything that's unlawful, but it's picking winners and losers and they are restricting the flow of students," Jenkins told the Journal. "The real issue should be how the schools provide a good education for these kids no matter what their zip code is. People who defend [placing limits on the number of students who can transfer to other districts] are really talking about jobs for adults and they are not talking about educational quality provided to kids."

The Kent program, which originally allowed only 1 percent of its students to participate in the schools-of-choice program, has undergone recent changes that have slightly increased that figure.

Michael Weiler, associate superintendent of the Kent Intermediate School District, recently told the Grand Rapids Press, "This is a competitive marketplace now, and we are going to be aggressive in emphasizing the quality of the public schools in Kent County. We want public schools to be the schools-of-choice, and all 20 of our districts offer quality programs that should be attractive."

Not all districts have sought to limit choice. Some have welcomed the broader choice law as an incentive to better their programs and prove they are ready for competition.

"We welcome competition. The reforms we've enacted would not have happened, at least not as fast, without competition," says Jeremy Hughes, superintendent of the Dearborn City School District.

During the 1990s, as choice increased through the growth of charter schools and public school choice, Dearborn began preparing to retain and attract students. New, specialized programs were developed, with parents' wants and needs becoming the primary focus. Concurrent with Dearborn's aggressive efforts to recruit students, enrollment at Dearborn public schools has increased from 13,857 in 1994-95 to 17,075 in 2000-01 even as competition from neighboring school districts and charter schools has increased.

Despite its limitations, the state choice law-in tandem with Michigan's charter school program-has had a tremendous impact on some districts. Last March, The Detroit News reported that Detroit schools had lost 19,000 students to charter schools and schools-of-choice this year and that no students from outside the district had chosen Detroit schools.

Even with limited choice, parents are beginning to see the potential these programs have to improve schools. Parents say the district must show improvement and offer better educational services to lure students back to the district.

"People are going to have to see the improvements in the curriculum," Rose Starks, a parent of three children in the Detroit school system, told The Detroit News. "If you can satisfy the parents and the children here now, you can then attract new ones. If you don't meet the needs of a basic and challenging curriculum, clean and safe buildings, you will not retain the students you have."

For more on how districts are responding to competition, see the 2000 Mackinac Center for Public Policy report, "The Impact of Limited School Choice on Public School Districts," available online at www.mackinac.org/2962.