A. Data Collection

1. Selection of Districts

The first stage of this report, its district selection process, was based on the categories set forth in Profiling Michigan's School Districts, published by Public Sector Consultants in 1989. "Assignment to a group," the profile explains, "is based on the district's geographic size, total population, proximity to a major urban area, and economic independence as well as the population in the surrounding communities" (p.10). Of the five major district groups (urban, suburban, city, town and rural) that the profile distinguishes, the first two received special emphasis in this report not only because their policies generally affect more students than those of smaller districts, but also because such districts often have larger budgets, more (and often more elaborate) facilities serving multiple grade levels, and, presumably, the most potential for innovation and the implementation of elaborate Schools of Choice programs. In short, Group 1 and 2 districts have the largest populations and generally offer the most schools from which to choose.

The target figures for the number of districts falling under each category to be studied, and the actual number studied, are as follows:

Group

Number Surveyed

1:

Urban

32

2:

Surburban

67

3:

City

23

4:

Town

15

5:

Rural

16

An essentially random process was used to select those districts to be studied from each group. Having been grouped, in other words, districts were selected from within each category without taking any particular features into account. If a district turned out to be too small to be affected by Choice, another district was selected. Because this report depended heavily upon school districts to forward voluntarily the relevant requested information (explained below), it may not be the case that the respondent pool was truly random. Districts which responded with too little information to be of help and those in which it was difficult to contact someone knowledgeable about Schools of Choice were occasionally bypassed in the interest of efficiency. Districts with the most prominent and extensive (or at least accessible) Choice programs may be more prone to route inquiries accurately and respond promptly than districts which lack well coordinated programs.

2. Telephone Survey

The majority of the information collected for this report was obtained through telephone interviews and informal requests for information. Quotations within the main body of this report which are not cited as having appeared in a particular written document were obtained during such telephone conversations. These informal interviews generally included questions regarding the following:

  • how the district was responding to Schools of Choice legislation

  • the district's offerings under Choice

  • the kind of student selection process to be used for Choice

  • whether the policy was on a "space available" basis

  • whether any problems were encountered in the process of formulating a Choice policy

  • whether the district had major objections to the Schools of Choice legislation

  • whether the new Choice policy represented a significant change of past practices.

    Conversations were intentionally allowed to progress naturally, with as little prompting as necessary, in order that interviewees could more easily discuss the idiosyncratic features of their districts.

    Following this interview, information such as the following was requested:

  • drafts of the district's Schools of Choice Planning Committee's recommendation the district's formal Choice policy (as adopted by the district's Board of Education);

  • background information used by the Committee;

  • pamphlets or letters the district had sent out informing parents of the Choice policy;

  • minutes from board meetings or committee meetings which might contain information relevant to the district's handling of Choice policy.

    Districts which indicated that formal Choice or Magnet programs had been in place for some time were additionally asked to supply information about these programs. Requests for information included a description of the research project being conducted and an invitation to include any additional information which seemed pertinent and might inform such an investigation.

    Not every district supplied all of the requested information. The information herein reported is therefore only as accurate as the information that districts provided either verbally or vis-a-vis copied documents. In many cases, old drafts of the Choice Planning Committee's recommendation were not readily available, but minutes from board meetings were often accessible. The depth and scope of available reports and brochures varied greatly among districts.

    Even when all of the requested information was provided, moreover, a variety of points sometimes remained unclear, such as the duration that a granted Choice request would remain in effect. In addition, not all committee recommendations included reviews of extant policies. When available, such information proved useful for judging the breadth and magnitude of districts' new Choice policies.

    Some districts required formal, written requests before releasing the relevant documents. In these cases, Freedom of Information Act (FOI) requests were filed. Without question, those districts which were sent FOI requests provided the most complete information. On reflection, it seems that a combination of telephone interviews followed by formal requests and follow-up calls may have supplied more complete documentation. Such an elaborate procedure was not within the scope of this report, however. It is obvious that some verbal requests were incompletely recorded or incorrectly filled due to miscommunication.

    3. Additional Sources & Follow-up Interviews

    In order to gather more information, a large number of newspaper articles was consulted. Some of the information these sources provided has been incorporated into Appendix 1, while other selections are quoted throughout this report where applicable.

    Appendix 3 contains a small set of interviews which were conducted after collecting the informational materials for this report. They provide a more thorough, in-depth commentary by various experts on districts' Choice policies, the Choice legislation, and the advantages and drawbacks to Schools of Choice structured in various ways. It should be added that not everyone involved in Choice at one level or another was willing to allow the publication of a transcribed interview.

    4. Data Compilation and Presentation

    All of the districts discussed in this report are listed alphabetically in Appendix 1 and rated with respect to:

    • Level of Innovation (Formalization)

    • Grade Levels Affected

    • Duration of a Granted Choice Application

    An explanation of the assessment system employed appears at the end of Appendix l. Districts appear listed by group number in Appendix 1­

    B. Complications: Judging Choice in its Proper Context

    If one can honestly say that "No man is an island," it might also be fairly said that no law is, either. The Choice mandate was not the state's first effort at educational reform by any means. Indeed, some have observed that without Public Act 25, which stipulated (among other things) that all Michigan school districts had to have core curricula (although each district can design its own core), public education would not have been in any shape to consider Schools of Choice. Some also note that, far from attempting to initiate a process of radical innovation, the Choice mandate actually represented but one stage of reform in a lengthy, ongoing process of public school improvement. In some districts, it is obvious that creative efforts have been initiated in recent years: the state, in addition to private sources such as the Midwest Education Partnership Program, the Business Roundtable and Michigan 2000 have encouraged renovation by providing helpful grants for planning and implementing important reform projects. School Report Cards are but one example of recent reforms. The scope of this report does not permit an analysis of the Schools of Choice legislation situated in a 10 or 20 year-long legislative context.

    It begins, instead, with the more limited question, "How have Michigan school districts responded to the Choice mandate, section 23a of the State School Aid Act?" To critics who would deride such a "naively" framed objective, one might reply that, were legislative contextualizations truly the only way to understand the Choice mandate, one would expect that administrators would have consistently answered "naive" inquiries by saying, in effect, "In order to appreciate what the district did with Choice, you must first understand how we have handled various other laws." That is not how the vast majority of administrators surveyed responded, and when they did so respond, the context involved desegregation orders. Those who were questioned almost always tried to assess the Choice legislation in terms of its benefits and failings, i.e. by its own effects. If such a reaction is a failure of understanding by many administrators which has seeped into this study, then perhaps the reasons why so many misunderstood so much so often must be investigated. Perhaps to many it was not obvious that Choice was intended to be seen as part of a larger whole.

    It should be noted, however, that this report identifies several praiseworthy reforms which were initiated by various districts prior to the passage of the Choice legislation.