1. Neighborhood Schools Preferred
The Legislature sought to preserve the neighborhood schools concept by preserving resident enrollment, i.e., by guaranteeing that neighborhood students would not be displaced to accommodate transfer students. Choice planning committees were quick to affirm their commitment to this principle. Parents, they claim, are comfortable with the convenience of neighborhood schools, and students prefer the shorter bus rides that such a system generally assures.
Center Line Superintendent Terry Follbaum spoke for many administrators when he told the Warren Weekly of May 13, 1992, that he "does not think a lot of people will take advantage of it [Schools of Choice ]. The local school concept is so embedded. Parents want to send their kids where their friends go to school."
The Legislature acted properly in affirming and preserving the primacy of neighborhood schools in the schools of choice legislation. Neighborhood schools and schools of choice are not mutually exclusive concepts, however. Given incentives such as greater autonomy and funding based on pupil enrollment, neighborhood schools may choose to welcome and even recruit new nonresident students without displacing resident students. Residents who prefer neighborhood schools above all else, moreover, may benefit from the stimulus for system-wide improvement provided by choice.
2. Loss of Local Control Feared
Despite the Legislature's intent that schools of choice provide an incentive for reform, some administrators and planning committee members complained that the mandate appeared as more of a threat than an offer. For many administrators, choice was an additional, time-consuming requirement that interfered with normal operations and intruded upon their autonomy.
For example, a number of administrators argued that the requirement that districts randomly select students when applicants exceed available space actually restricted rather than enhanced choice.
Percy Smith, Superintendent of Ironwood Area Schools, and Kelloggsville's Assistant Superintendent William Zoller both observed that, in the past, administrators could weigh parents' and students' reasons for requesting a transfer. For example, academic reasons for transfer requests may outweigh other reasons, such as convenience. Under the districts' new policies, however, students' reasons for requesting a certain school are irrelevant: the selection process is random.
In contrast, Eaton Rapids Administrative Assistant to the Superintendent Timothy Culver saw the district's new random lottery selection technique as "more fair."
Other administrators lamented the program as burdensome. One Fraser administrator explained that his district had formerly operated on a first-come, first-served basis. Now, he said, the process is slower and burdened with superfluous paperwork. Petoskey's Committee adamantly opposed the state mandate, partly on the grounds that it would be unwieldy compared to existing policy: "[T]he district would no longer be able to accommodate many of the day care needs of families, and there would be greater restrictions for students who are non-walkers (approximately 2/3 of the enrollment)." Patricia Murphy, Administrative Assistant of Classified Personnel in the Saginaw Township District, cited rigid deadlines for applications as reducing the district's flexibility.
District administrators and local citizens are rightfully protective of local autonomy in the face of state mandates. But the schools of choice legislation left it up to local districts to decide how to implement their own schools of choice programs. The Legislature even allowed districts to exempt themselves from the mandate. If anything, it appears that the Legislature erred by allowing districts enough local autonomy to substitute transfer policies for genuine choice programs.
Districts with space constraints understandably prefer having some discretion to differentiate legitimate reasons for requesting a transfer from less noble motives. Ideally, districts would seek to accommodate all choice requests. Unfortunately, most districts accept existing space constraints as a given, thereby necessitating rationing of choice seats. With greater flexibility from the state Legislature and district administrators, and a willingness to innovate, schools could find ways to accommodate enrollment shifts and thereby negate the whole issue of random admissions to choice programs. For example, Detroit's Bates Academy, an empowered school which directly controls over 90% of its budget, has decided to purchase a new building in part to increase its enrollment capacity.
3. Parents Don't Care
Some administrators observed that parents often remain uninterested in schools of choice, even after receiving information. For example, Coldwater's Sharon Franz commented that not even one parent attended a public forum the district hosted to discuss schools of choice. John Mills of the Westland district observed, moreover, that parents are doing little of the consumer investigation upon which choice is premised.
Many districts which informally approved transfer requests in the past reported that the majority of those requesting transfers did so for reasons of personal convenience rather than academics (e.g., an alternate school might be closer to a babysitter's residence). Huron Valley's District Communication Coordinator Micki Marceau-Vernier explained that about 40 of 9,000 pupils exercise their open enrollment option in a given year – 99 percent of whom do so for logistical reasons.
In Harper Creek, where formalization of standing policy was the order of the day, the broader dissemination of information about choice options resulted in slightly more interest in such options. Most of those inquiring, however, continued to do so for reasons of child care convenience.
Apathy, however, does not afflict parents in all communities. Tecumseh's Gary Lovett said, "People respond very well to choice." Currently, Tecumseh has space to accommodate approximately 300-320 choice students, he said, although the district receives between 450 and 500 requests per year. According to Lovett, the district only modified its existing practices slightly in reaction to the choice legislation because Tecumseh is already involved in cross-district choice within the county.
Although Lapeer Superintendent Jack McCauley agrees that there can be tremendous local inertia in favor of the traditional neighborhood school model, he observed that the state's choice mandate can be beneficial since "it helps overcome" local complacency. A district can motivate parents by telling them, "This is the way that the state is going," he said.
Many administrators routinely inferred that their receipt of relatively low numbers of transfer requests proves that parents are satisfied with the education currently provided to their children by their neighborhood schools. This logic is flawed, however, in that people may seem satisfied with their current situation only because they have nothing with which to compare it.
When the only substantive difference among schools is their location, it follows that educational choices will be based on geographic convenience: no competing values manifest themselves for consideration. Curricular and pedagogical diversity, combined with the dissemination of results-oriented information, would likely stimulate many more parents to consider choosing schools for reasons other than convenience.
4. Choice Is impractical for Small Districts
Greg Milkins, Assistant Superintendent of Business in the Orchard View district, typified the view of many small school district administrators: "For small districts like ours (we have only two elementary schools) this is just poppycock." Choice;, he said, "might have a major impact in a large district, but it's crazy for a small one," where money is a concern and the schools are essentially the same. Noting that he supported enhanced quality of education and increased opportunity, he concluded that choice in districts like Orchard View amounts to nothing more than "jumping through [the State's] hoops." Lapeer Superintendent Jack McCauley similarly observed, "In many [small] districts, choice is a joke," he said, because they lack the capacity necessary to offer a real choice program with authentically distinct options.
Building-level choice is clearly less feasible in districts with few schools and great distance between them. In these cases, choice can be enhanced by using distance-learning to diversify curricular offerings within schools. Alternatively, districts may consider consolidating one or several grade level programs into one building, as the Stephensville and Thornapple- Kellog districts have done, and allow for a choice of teachers and/or programs.
However, according to Kathleen Mayhew of the State Department of Education, the Office of the Attorney General is of the opinion that the legislative intent for the schools of choice language was that students and families would be able to choose among schools – that is, distinct geographical and architectural entities. It therefore appears that schools within schools or immersion programs would not qualify as schools of choice under a severe interpretation of this law. (For more information, see Appendix 3, Part 1, Interview with Kathleen Mayhew.)
A related issue is that few districts other than major urban ones have more than one middle or high school. Without interdistrict choice or schools within schools, public school choice may often be limited to elementary schools.
5. Miscellaneous Objections
In most districts, the degree to which choice is implemented depends heavily on administrators' attitudes toward choice – despite the Legislature's attempt to involve parents in the process directly. (Wyandotte's Director of Curriculum Robert Dunn discusses this point in Appendix 3.) As one might expect, these attitudes varied from outright hostility to enthusiastic support. A small sample follows.
Oscoda Superintendent Craig Douglas said that underlying the choice mandate, one finds "a typical Republican 'Lets compete and make everything better' mentality."
Planning Committee Chairman Dave Collins of the Western district emphasized his fear that an elaborate choice system may lead to elitism and cause a "rift" or infighting among buildings and teachers. "People want nearby buildings," he said.
Riverview Superintendent Michael Krigelski observed that schools of choice neither posed notable problems nor entailed a significant change for the district. In his view, however, the exercise of choice could amount to escapism. Krigelski wondered how one could deal with a student trying to escape a disliked teacher; one cannot know whether a student's transfer request is for legitimate academic reasons or otherwise motivated. "In life, if I don't like my boss, I've got to deal with him. I can't escape," he said. We all "must learn to face our problems, instead of fleeing them." The provision of easy choice for any reason whatsoever encourages students to make a mountain out of minor concerns, he said.
Perhaps the most scathing words came from Kentwood's Superintendent Jerome A. Victor. "The new changes won't improve things," he augured. The choice legislation, in fact, is "the most backassward law" that he's seen in quite some time. Victor, a self-proclaimed moderate Republican who is upset with the Party for pushing schools of choice, said that he saw intra-district choice as a preparatory step toward the ultimate goal of an inter-district, comprehensive, public and private voucher system, a haunting specter which he "hate(s)." Broad-based choice, he suggested, would exacerbate "white flight and socioeconomic flight," both of which are "destructive to the kind of community we're trying to build."
"All it is is a political move to get away from ... what they should be doing – improving school financing," River Valley Superintendent Charles Williams told the February 19, 1992, Heraid-Palladium. "It's just a token thing," he added.
Some administrators, in contrast, spoke positively about choice. Clio Area administrators, for instance, thought that choice will increase contact and interaction between parents and instructors. "It breaks down barriers," one said.
The choice plan adopted by the Cass City district did more to clarify than broaden existing transfer policy, but Superintendent Kenneth .1. Micklash saw a positive side to his district's formalization of choice. "'The plan provides good clarification on transfers from one elementary to another," he told the Saginaw News on April 24, 1992. "Before, there were no governing rules and it was hit or miss in requesting a transfer.... This will provide structure and organization to the process."
Fitzgerald Assistant Superintendent James Edoff told the May 13, 1992, Warren Weekly, "It's positive anytime you provide another choice for people."
Not all those who favor schools of choice, however, are elated with the state's approach to instituting the practice. The Grand Rapids Press of April 23, 1992, for instance, summarized: "School officials [in Rockford] like the idea of schools of choice, but are unhappy with its being tied to the State Aid Act. 'This is regressive and punitive: it is not an incentive,' said Superintendent Michael Shibler[.]"
No amount of legislative prescription or departmental rule-making can produce effective schools of choice programs in districts where administrators do not value or routinely oppose choice. Many administrators operate from a deeply ingrained paradigm, a "tunnel vision" which does not look favorably on the idea of schools competing in an open marketplace. While this "tunnel vision" may not be the fault of those within the system, it is nonetheless real and can inhibit even experimentation with choice as a school improvement program.
Most of the reservations, objections and problems cited in this section merit serious attention. Many are not problems with choice per se, but rather peculiarities of Michigan's first statewide experiment with schools of choice, and most, if not all, can be overcome with improved planning, incentives and better legislative direction. These "problems" are not problems if we choose to learn from them and work to refine and improve Michigan's schools of choice program.