1. Limited Space
One feature common to all choice programs studied is their adoption on a space-available basis. This is not surprising, given that districts were not required to adopt programs that would force pupils from their neighborhood schools. As a result, the availability of choice options depends on how many seats are available after virtually all other students have been placed.
In most districts, the reality is that very few seats (less than one or two percent of total enrollment) are available for choice options. Restrictive conditions included:
a recent increase in student population, which has left some school districts filled to capacity;
contractually-imposed class size limits, which inhibit districts from adjusting enrollment capacity within buildings or classrooms; and
individual schools' lack of substantial autonomy from the district's central administration with respect to their budgets, expenditures and managerial structures.
The choice mandate required districts to employ a random selection process when the number of applicants exceeds the number of available spaces in a requested building. Districts were left free to determine the duration of a granted choice request, i.e., whether it would remain in effect for the duration of a student's career or for only, one year. Most districts, in order to insure that the maximum number of choice seats would be available from year to year, opted to require annual lotteries for all choice applicants. Few students, therefore, are guaranteed placement beyond one year.
In addressing the question of space availability, Michigan districts have accepted existing open spaces as the definitive amount of available space while displaying little effort to determine what factors actually limit available space and how to address them. Few tried innovative strategies to increase space availability in order to accommodate enrollment shifts generated by formalized choice policies.
As a result of constraints on space availability, most parents have no more choice of schools now than they had prior to the state's choice mandate. The only effect of the legislation in many districts may be to engender greater competition for few available seats, thus creating more, not less, parental dissatisfaction.
Furthermore, districts' inability to guarantee student enrollment in choice programs beyond one year constitutes a significant disincentive to parents who might otherwise consider exercising choice. Few parents are likely to risk the emotional disruption to their children caused by changing school environments if the change is not assured for the duration of students' primary, secondary or high school careers. Once accepted into a chosen school, students should be treated as if they were neighborhood attendees. Such an assurance, unfortunately, limits the number of open spaces for others in subsequent years.
Limited space availability is not an intrinsic barrier to schools of choice. Programs of choice within schools are feasible, as are schools within schools (such as immersion schools). Greater financial and managerial autonomy might afford individual schools the flexibility to accommodate increased student enrollment.
2. inadequate Consumer Information
The volume and scope of consumer information that districts are providing about schools of choice vary enormously. Although all schools of choice plans (as required by law) include a provision for the dissemination of information to parents about different schools' offerings, they are often rather vague as to precisely what information will be supplied. Counseling and advice from a combination of personnel including principals, superintendents and counselors are usually provided, as are a variety of printed materials. These materials generally include schools' mission statements and philosophies in addition to brief descriptions of academic offerings. Parents are often encouraged to visit and observe classes in schools that they are considering as transfer possibilities. Several larger districts, such as Detroit, sponsor informational fairs about schools of choice.
Although numerous districts made a sincere effort to provide measured and detailed information to parents about individual schools, one very important piece of information was missing in all districts surveyed: measurements of each individual school's effectiveness.
No district that we know of developed any form of an indicator system to measure components of school quality. Information was restricted to descriptions of individual schools' missions, philosophies, programs, etc. While beneficial, such information tells but half the story: it measures input, not output.
If choice is meant to encourage competition, then information must be more relevant to parents. . It must include measurements of each individual school's effectiveness.
3. Standardized Schools
Public schools within districts and, to a lesser extent, between districts operate fairly standardized programs. Curricula are, for the most part, uniform within districts. Work rules governing teachers and support staff are uniformly established by contracts. Despite some recent movement toward site-based management, school governance is still centralized in most districts. Even districts that adopted innovative school programs long before the choice mandate was enacted usually did so on a district-wide basis.
In many districts, choice may conflict with certain prevailing educational philosophies, most notably, equity. By definition, public education must serve all students. As a result, administrators must be careful not to create conditions of inequity among schools. Any failure to provide all students with the same educational opportunities (whether or not every student in that group will benefit equally from a standard program) would almost assuredly expose administrators to charges of favoritism at the very least.
This apparent contradiction between choice and equity/standardization was recognized in some districts. Farmington Director of Building and Student Services Dan Cowan noted in a March 17, 1992 memo that the mere ability to choose among virtually indistinguishable alternatives does not constitute an authentic choice.
Kelloggsville's Assistant Superintendent William Zoller similarly reflected, "If schools were significantly different, there'd be a significant impact to choice," but as the district spends the same amount of money on each pupil and has teachers of basically equal talent, choice will make hardly a ripple in the community.
Alpena's "Questions and Answers" brochure entertained the question, "If 'choice' in Alpena is limited to the 10 elementaries, what are the differences between them?" It answered,
Each elementary has a different building, a different teaching staff, and serves a different neighborhood. Beyond that, there are no substantive differences. Each runs on basically the same program, teaches the same curriculum, runs on the same schedule, offers the same basic dollars per pupil education. For Choice to be real, there must be a real difference among schools. Among Alpena Public's 10 elementaries, there is no real difference.
For quite some time, many districts have sought to tailor instruction to individual learning styles and speeds. Such individualization, however beneficial, rarely enhances choice. In the great majority of districts, teacher or classroom choice is not allowed. Asked whether a more elaborate choice system might be established so that students could select specific teachers, Jefferson Assistant Superintendent Fred Sakel replied, "Teacher choice sets up one teacher against others. We like to see all of our teachers as equal." Sakel's attitude, without question, could be predicated of many administrators interviewed for this report.
Authentic choice exists only when there are distinct options. School districts with magnet or other alternative school programs provide some degree of real choice. In most districts, however, standardization inhibits meaningful choice.
In effect, the Legislature put the cart before the horse. In order for there to be choice, there must be real choices. Such real choices can either (a) be created prior to offering choice, or (b) be allowed to develop spontaneously as the result of choice. The Legislature failed to provide for the effective operation of either mechanism.
Choice, however, implicitly entails more than program diversity and theme schools; it entails competition among schools. Even where standardization is the rule, each individual school's effectiveness may vary significantly. Choice, by rewarding effective schools with new enrollment (and hopefully, increased resources) can act as a catalyst for school improvement. But, in the words of the Alpena District's question and answer brochure on choice,
Choice sounds tike a good word. This program was designed by the Legislature to create competition among schools, so that they would improve. But the Legislature limited the act to schools that do not compete with each other! Since it does not involve parochial schools, or schools in other districts, there is no competition. Alpena schools all get their share of the same dollars and do not compete for money or students.
4. Transportation Costly
The most common objection voiced by administrators to the schools of choice mandate was economic in nature. The original legislation required districts to provide transportation for choice students; it also promised a 20% increase in state transportation aid beginning in the 1992-93 school year. Previously, districts with inform a] transfer policies often required parents to provide transportation for transfer students unless they could be accommodated using existing bus routes. Administrators worried that the requirement to provide transportation for students exercising choice would become destructively costly and divert much-needed funds from other endeavors, such as purchasing textbooks, refurbishing aging facilities and retaining crucial support staff. Their worry was not only that the state would subsidize only part of the increased costs of transporting students, but additionally that such reimbursements were not guaranteed in the future.
This latter concern proved to be justified when, in April of 1992, the Legislature cut the funding for transporting choice students from the state school aid act and lifted the requirement that districts transport choice students. Some districts will continue to provide transportation anyway; others had committed to providing transportation only tentatively, depending upon state funding, and now will not be providing it.
Apparently many citizens shared administrators' concerns over the potential cost of transporting new choice students, as evidenced by voters' approval of every district's exemption request (approximately 28 districts requested exemption).
Beyond the potentially disproportionate cost of busing one child across an entire district, administrators noted that transportation takes time. Under numerous choice plans, students using district busing will miss up to 30 minutes of class at the beginning and end of the day to take a shuttle bus between a transportation hub and their school of attendance.
Districts' Experiences with Transportation: A Survey
Alpena's director of K-6 instruction, Marilyn Frank, was angry about the legislation, as were others in the district, she said. The funds that Alpena would have to spend on new buses (which would be required for a more extensive transportation network) would come from the general fund. She deemed the opportunity cost of such an allocation far too great and hoped that area voters would exempt the district from the legislation. The district, which has 10 elementary schools spread throughout its 640 square miles, already has double bus runs. District transportation for choice students would assuredly exacerbate the district's awkward financial situation and add time delays, Frank said. Alpena's "Questions and Answers" brochure framed the district's worries this way:
Unfortunately, the many will end up paying for the few. Because choice does not affect the district's 3,000 junior high and high school students, only half of the district's children are even eligible for choice. And while some parents of elementary youngsters may opt for choice, most parents will want their children to attend their own neighborhood school, staying closest to home, with their own friends, and having the shortest possible bus ride. Still, funds to pay for transporting the children changing schools will HAVE TO COME OUT OF PRESENT PROGRAMS AND SERVICES. The district will not ask for millage to fund this additional transportation cost, which means that while your child/grandchild may not choose to change schools, money will come out of his/her education to pay for this program.
According to The Community Crier of April 1, 1992, the Plymouth-Canton district (which sought exemption by vote) had serious financial concerns about the legislation's original transportation clause. Said Board Vice-President Roland Thomas, "I cannot vote in good conscience for a program with an open-ended cost such as this one."
Saginaw Township complained that there has been no increase in funding despite increased state requirements which may well increase busing costs. Mona Shores Superintendent Kenneth Walcott agreed and called the legislation "faulty," largely for its transportation clause. Superintendent James Richendollar of the Van Buren district shared Walcott's opinion in part, noting, "The issue is not the [extra] work [that choice entails], but the cost." A conservative estimate of the amount the district would have to spend on transportation – beyond what the state could be expected to subsidize with its promised transportation dollars – is $300,000. Other districts, such as Petoskey, were unwilling even to formalize past practice in accordance with the choice legislation precisely because of the cost of providing transportation. The Planning Committee reported that "it did not find that the educational advantages of schools of choice outweighed the increased costs in transportation to the taxpaying public."
Grosse Pointe, which has had open enrollment since 1986 and where approximately 100 of the district's 7,500 students exercise choice, also sought exemption from the choice mandate. Parents of choice students provide their own children's transportation under Grosse Pointe's system, so the district saw no reason to increase its transportation expenditures by nearly $500,000 just to relieve parents of the transportation burden.
In Livonia, the reaction was the same. A May 14, 1992, letter from Livonia Board of Education President Richard McKnight to local citizens explained,
The Board of Education believes the Schools of Choice program is an example of another state mandate that is not needed in our district. We have an existing optional program entitled Open Enrollment that functions very well. Open enrollment has been offered for years to parents interested in enrolling their child(ren) at a school other than their home school within the district. Currently 416 students attend non-home schools in this district at no additional cost to the taxpayers. These parents are obligated to provide the transportation for their child to the open enrollment school.
Not All Districts Said Transportation Would Be Problematic
Several districts surveyed reported that transportation would not be a problem. Their reasons included:
an excess of busing capacity;
having elaborate busing system already in place as a result of desegregation efforts or existing transfer and/or magnet programs; and
the district's geographical smallness.
Only a handful of districts, however, shared the Legislature's belief that equal access to schools of choice obligated districts to provide full transportation for all choice students.
Uncertainty surrounding the additional cost of, and the commitment of the State to pay for, transporting all choice students generated significant local opposition to the choice mandate. This unfortunate development need not have occurred if the Legislature had shown greater flexibility on this issue. Since choice both presumes and is intended to promote greater parental involvement, it may be reasonable to require most parents to provide some or all of the additional transportation to choice schools. Many parents are apparently more than willing to accept this burden. Exceptions could be made for disadvantaged parents or special circumstances.
Choice is too important a school improvement policy to be held hostage to concerns about additional transportation costs.
5. Lack of Coherent Direction from State
Many districts found the schools of choice legislation, as well as the guidance subsequently provided by the Department of Education, ambiguous or confusing.
A memo dated March 17, 1992, from Farmington Director of Building and Student Services Don Cowan to Superintendent Flanagan and the Board of Education observes:
The enclosed recommendation to the Board of Education regarding a School of Choice policy was a difficult document to produce. The difficulties were not on the part of the committee. The difficulties stemmed from the lack of direction from the Legislature, especially in their definition of School of Choice and their lack of understanding the ramifications associated with their directive.
According to the April 2, 1992, Plymouth Observer, "Dick Egli, the district's community relations director, also served on the [planning] committee and found it a frustrating experience. '. . . I had considerable personal frustration when we tried to get information from Lansing about how this thing should go ... No one really knew. Here it was law – it had been tacked onto the state aid act – yet no one could give us the guidance we needed and wanted.'"
The Battle Creek Enquirer reported on May 2, 1992, "On April 1, the Battle Creek Board of Education adopted its plan for five middle schools, effective in the fall, with the understanding that it could expand the plan to include 16 elementary schools the following year. But on March 26, the state told school officials that a districtwide plan was required, said Gerry Mann, director of secondary instruction. At that point, school officials were unsure about what the new directive meant and were too far along with [the] plan to change it."
The same held we for the St. Johns District. A memo dated February 18, 1992, which was shared with the Board, reports,
Friday, the 13th, I received a call from the State Department of Education stating that our "Plan looks great!" and that she would be meeting that afternoon with the Attorney General to get more compliance information so that a memo could be sent soon from the State Superintendent
Monday, the 16th, I received call number two stating that, following her Friday p.m. meeting, she needed to notify me that we were not in compliance. The latest ruling is that the law requires that a plan must include all grade levels in the 1992-93 school year. How Frustrating!!
Apparently, the Office of Attorney General counseled Departmental staff to refrain from defining the parameters of schools of choice because local committees were authorized to do that. In March, the State Superintendent issued a "Questions and Answers" document in an attempt to provide guidance on many of the questions which the Department received via telephone.
Districts would have been better served by a clearer definition of schools of choice from both the Legislature and the State Department of Education. The Legislature, though correct not to mandate a specific program of choice, did not establish any minimum criteria. The Department of Education was given wide latitude to develop guidelines for districts, in part as a result of the legislation's vagueness, but the Department lacked adequate staff to do the job properly. It appears that the department would have benefited from clearer legislative direction as well. The resulting confusion contributed to many districts' minimalist responses to the legislation. Future modifications to the legislation should include minimum criteria which require more than the mere formalization of transfer policies.
6. Lack of Planning Time
Many districts reported that the amount of planning time allowed by the state was insufficient, and at least one district (Muskegon) reported that its school board recommended exemption because of inadequate planning time. Districts had barely 45 days after passage of the legislation in late September 1991 to begin complying with the legislation's timetable for establishing schools of choice planning committees. The planning committees had until April 1 of this year to develop plans, but many of them did not begin formally meeting until late January or February. This left little time for committee members to research and study their options adequately, identify impediments, gather public input and make detailed recommendations to their school board. The Legislature retroactively recognized this problem by voting in June to delay implementation until 1993-94, but by then districts had finalized their programs (or sought exemption) according to the original timetable.
Legislators could have anticipated that most school districts would not develop and implement elaborate schools of choice programs in less than one year. While one or two years may be adequate to develop choice plans, effective and complete implementation will require several more years in many cases. A more realistic legislative timetable is evidently in order.
Generous planning time is not purely a luxury – it is a prerequisite for successful programs of choice. A Study of the Program of Choice at McKinley Elementary in the Wyandotte School District explains,
The [popular and successful] program was well thought-out in advance, time was taken to prepare each learning module.... [T]he organization, staff development, administrative support, and teacher time to plan paid dividends and resulted in a very enriching experience for children. Programs which do not have the components mentioned in the last sentence, from our experience, tend to fail (p. 69).