Should parents be allowed to choose which schools their children attend?

In the past few years, the idea that they should has received an astonishing level of political and popular support. Since 1989, as many as twenty states have adopted some form of school choice, nine of which allow choice both within and between districts. The 1991 Michigan Education Poll (conducted for the State Board of Education) found that 61% of those surveyed favor choice within their local public school district, and 62% favored including private schools in a choice system.

The Promise of Choice

The popularity of schools of choice is partly due to its appeal to a variety of groups that often disagree on educational policies. Proponents argue that school choice:

  • introduces competition and market processes into education, which generates more learning at lower cost:

  • provides the disadvantaged with the power to choose better schools than may be available in their neighborhoods and thereby fosters racial integration in public education;

  • avoids the excessive bureaucratization and lack of responsiveness that presently characterize public education;

  • provides a variety in pedagogical styles and program options, which is essential to maximize learning, regardless of any other rationale for choice;

  • leads to greater accountability of school boards, school administrators and teachers to the taxpayers; and

  • serves as an early warning system that can alert school management to parental concerns before they become major problems.

In recent years, a body of research has grown up in support of schools of choice. Mary Anne Raywid, professor of education at Hofstra University, has summarized this research as follows in The Case for School Choice (published by the Phi Delta Kappa Foundation, Bloomington, IN, 1989):

A number of studies have shown remarkable improvement for low student achievers located in new or different learning environments: improvement in attitudes toward school and learning, in attendance and behavior patterns, and in achievement.

There is abundant evidence that public school parents are more satisfied with and have greater confidence in schools that provide choice; that parental choice increases the commitment and cohesion within those schools; and that these attributes combine to improve school quality and make schools more effective.

Numerous studies indicate that schools of choice have pronounced, positive effects on teachers and administrators, indicating higher levels of satisfaction, more opportunities for self-actualization, greater degrees of autonomy, better teacher/administrator and student/teacher relations and higher levels of accom­plishment than in schools without choice.

Public School Choice Comes to Michigan

In September 1991, against this backdrop of growing support for schools of choice, the Michigan Legislature adopted an amendment to the 1991-92 state school aid act which requires that all school districts with more than one school at a grade level implement an in-district schools of choice program in the 1992-93 school year in order to be eligible for state funding. Key components of the legislation are outlined below:

  • School districts were required to form a schools of choice planning committee by November 15, 1991, of which 2/3 of the members were to be parents not employed by the district.

  • The planning committee was to develop and submit to the district board – for its approval or rejection by April 1, 1992 – an in-district schools of choice program which would include at least:

    • adequate information for parents and access to counseling;

    • a plan to transport all students to their school of choice;

    • a plan to ensure equal opportunity for enrollment through a random selection process (priority in placement was allowed for a sibling of a pupil already enrolled in a school); and

    • a plan to maintain all existing standards of racial and ethnic integration within the district.

  • Pupils could not be forced from their neighborhood school as a result of the program.

  • Districts could exempt themselves from the requirements oft he act only if the school board requested an exemption and district voters subsequently approved the district's request at a valid election prior to the 1992-93 school year.

  • The Legislature pledged to provide a 20% increase in funding for transportation in the 1992-93 school year;

  • The State Department of Education was required to provide technical assistance and administrative support to districts as requested.

Over the course of the last nine months, most of Michigan's 563 school districts have taken some formal action in response to the state's choice mandate, ranging from spirited efforts to develop comprehensive plans involving all district schools to seeking exemption from the mandate by local vote.

As early as April of this year, it appeared that the majority of districts perceived the schools of choice legislation not as an opportunity for genuine innovation and experimentation, but rather as another burdensome mandate for which the legislature was providing little or no funding.

Consequently, beginning in May we surveyed over 150) districts to learn what went wrong and what went right with schools of choice.

Statistics tell only half of the story, however. By assessing qualitatively the trends that have formed among the state's districts, we seek to discover why Michigan's attempt at choice fizzled and what can be learned from it.

What follows in Section 1 is a summary of the findings of our survey with commentary. Section 2 highlights exemplary schools of choice programs. and Section 3 recommends constructive changes for the schools of choice legislation.

Survey Methodology

A total of 153 school districts were surveyed. Schools were grouped into five categories: Urban, Suburban, City, Town/County, and Rural. Approximately two-thirds of the schools were selected from the Urban and Suburban groups, as it was thought that they offered the most realistic prospects for implementing schools of choice programs in the short-term. Selection within each category was random.

The survey was primarily conducted through telephone interviews and informal requests for information. (Quotations within the report without specific citations were obtained during such telephone interviews) In addition, a large number of newspaper articles were consulted.

For a more detailed explanation of survey methodology, please see Appendix 1.

Appendix 2 is a summary of school districts surveyed. It lists each school district surveyed, the county in which it is located, the extent to which it implemented the schools of choice concept, and the grade levels affected by the choice legislation.

It is important to note that while this study was underway, the schools of choice legislation mutated several times. Not only was the planned additional transportation funding for students exercising choice cut from the state budget, but districts were relieved of the requirement to provide transportation for choice students. In addition, the choice legislation has been amended to exempt districts which had adopted open enrollment policies as of October 1991. The schools of choice mandate has been postponed for one year as well.

It should be noted that some school districts may have altered their programs since this report was compiled. Such changes were sometimes prompted by amendments to the legislation.