An overwhelming majority of districts responded to the state mandate by merely formalizing their existing transfer policies. Such policies already allowed parents to send their children to different schools than they would normally attend. In essence, school districts equated transfer policies with schools of choice. Few districts not already operating formal magnet or choice programs developed innovative new programs as a result of the mandate. Several districts are planning to investigate more elaborate choice programs, but they are exceptions. See Appendix 2 for a summary of the extent to which each district surveyed implemented the choice concept.

In most cases, formalization involved few changes in districts' existing transfer policies. Previously, the transfer option was not openly advertised; now parents are informed that this option is available to them. Instead of dealing with choice applicants on a case-by-case basis, most districts now have application forms, and (as required by law) they all use a random selection process if the number of students requesting anew school exceeds the spaces available in that school. Under informal transfer programs, parents were often required to provide transportation for their children unless they could be easily serviced by an existing bus route; under the original choice mandate, districts were required to provide full transportation for all choice applicants.

Sample Districts that Formalized Existing Transfer Policy: A Survey

Most schools boards across the state have chosen the least disruptive course, that is, simply to affirm the current practice, which already allows parents to transfer their children to different schools within the district on a space-available basis.

- Editorial, Morning Sun (Alma Edition), April 26, 1992

After a few months of work, most local school districts have decided they already offer parents flexibility and choice within their limited resources and are not recommending any major changes ...

- Linda S. Mah, Kalamazoo Gazette, March 27, 1992

The Escanaba District's Elementary School Coordinator and Chapter I Director Terry Hampton indicated that the whole choice planning process succeeded only in putting the old transfer policy in writing.

Niles Administrative Assistant Douglas Law virtually echoed Hampton when he described the district's new policy as almost the same as before, adding that the district has always sought to accommodate requests. Executive Director of Curriculum Nancy Nimtz agreed. "We've always had a schools of choice program," she explained.

Hilde Corbet of the Chippewa Valley District echoed Hampton as well, noting that the formalization of the district's policy includes transportation, but nothing else changed significantly. In Forest Hills, where there has been some form of schools of choice for six years, the effect was "to make standard practice official," according to Secretary to the Superintendent Pat Schmidt.

One finds only minor change in the Lakeshore District as well. Reports the Herald-Palladium, "Hollywood School Principal Les Collins, who presented the [Planning Committee's] plan, said the new policy is a modification of the board's current transfer policy, which allows voluntary and involuntary transfers among the three elementary schools. "We just had to conform the way we do this to the law,' Collins said."

The Marshall District viewed the choice exercise as "making terminology," according to the Superintendent's office, as the district reportedly had choice available before the state made it mandatory. Melvindale's Administrative Assistant and Curriculum Director Donna Schmidt noted that the district's "new policy won't be much different from the old one." She added that the district has "always had informal choice." The Fitzgerald District finds itself in a similar position, as it previously granted transfer requests which were made for "legitimate reasons."

Saline's superintendent, Maurice Conn, described the district's choice policy as a "continuation" of its old transfer procedures. Southgate similarly codified its "unofficial policy" of entertaining student transfer requests, according to Superintendent Thomas Withee. The Sturgis District indicated that it has always filled transfer requests to the best of its ability but now has a formal Choice policy which explains the procedure, lists relevant selection and participation criteria, and provides more specific guidelines for determining space availability.

The Huron Valley District has had open enrollment for approximately 30 years, according to District Communication Coordinator Micki Marceau-Vemier. Choice in Huron Valley meant that informal "operational and procedural" guidelines were formulated into a cogent written policy. According to the Milford Times of April 2, 1992, she "told the board the committee was led by the belief that schools of choice was no more or less important than the district's policy of open enrollment."

In the Alma District, "According to school officials, the plan is quite similar to the way in which the district has been practicing student placement for years," reported the April 22, 1992, Morning Sun (Alma edition). "Always in the past, when we've received requests from parents, we've tried to accommodate their needs. We've really had schools of choice for quite sometime," Alma Superintendent William McKinstry told the Sun.

Not everyone, however, is willing to equate a schools of choice program with a formalized transfer policy. In a letter to the Delta-Waverly News Herald, Waverly District resident Kristine Prinz makes an important distinction between schools of choice and open enrollment. She writes, in part,

I take issue with the board's belief that the current open enrollment policy serves the community in the same way that "Schools of Choice" would....

While open enrollment does give a family the opportunity to place their child where they think the child's education is best served, the reality is that many of the open enrollment students in Waverly are in their particular building because of access to the family's preferred child care. I don't think this is what "Schools of Choice" is about.

"Schools of Choice" offers the community the chance to build into choice "magnet" programs, where curriculum can be innovative and address specific educational goals that parents are advocating; examples would be a basic skills program or intensive foreign language development.

Commentary:

The mere formalization of existing transfer policies is sufficient to comply only with a minimalist definition of schools of choice. Under such an interpretation, nearly all of Michigan's school districts can claim to have some form of school choice so long as they at least consider a parent's request for a student transfer. Even if the district approves only a minor percentage of these transfer requests, this can be construed as an open enrollment policy tantamount to school choice.

Such an interpretation is belied by the legislation itself: planning committees would not have been necessary had mere formalization been the Legislature's goal. It seems clear that the Legislature intended districts to move beyond the status quo and significantly increase the scope and quality of choices available to parents. Choice, acting in conjunction with other school improvement programs, would help transform district operations.

The huge gap between legislative intent and district compliance raises several important questions: Can districts, left to themselves, be expected to implement schools of choice programs? Was there some fatal flaw in the legislation itself which undermined its own intent?