On August 7, 1992, Adam DeVore of TEACH Michigan interviewed Michigan's Coordinator of the School Improvement/Professional Development Office Kathleen Mayhew. Mayhew has been in the Michigan Department of Education for 16 years and was a curriculum consultant when the Schools of Choice law passed. Prior to that, Mayhew assembled a position parer on School of Choice for the State Department of Education, per the 1989 School Aid Act. After completing her undergraduate study at Northern Michigan University, she earned her master's degree in education from Michigan State University. Mayhew also taught English at the high school level for 7 years.
DeVore: What role did you play in the Schools of Choice legislation, once districts received information and began acting upon it? Did you have any assistance?
Mayhew: After the legislation passed, I was the staff person designated to respond to Schools of Choice questions, calls, or requests for assistance. At the time, my position was that of curriculum consultant in the Curriculum Development Unit of this agency.
I was invited to make several formal presentations on the issue of Schools of Choice throughout this State. The Michigan Association of School Administrators, the superintendents' group in this state, has sponsored several speakers and meetings on the issue of Choice. Other groups have done likewise. Those sessions were held during the fall, prior to the passage of the State School Aid Act, which contained the Schools of Choice requirement. They sessions were conducted to familiarize people with the concept of Choice.
There has not been, other than my activity, as well as that of the state superintendent and the associate superintendent, much availability of technical assistance in the development of Schools of Choice plans. DeVore: So, if calls came in, you'd be the one fielding them?
DeVore: About how many calls came in?
Mayhew: The telephone rang incessantly. Sometimes we received over 100 in a day. For a while, I kept a folder of messages that people left when they couldn't reach me; the folder was huge. That didn't count all the calls that I was actually present to take. It was tremendous. My secretary couldn't handle them all, so I put an answering machine on my desk that would take half of them. She took the other half, and I was continuously on the phone. That happened from mid-January through April 1, and then the calls tapered off, because as of April 1, the plan was to be sent to the local school boards.
DeVore: What questions were most common?
Mayhew: What do we do? Do we have to include all buildings? Is there a way that we can delay this? Do we have to do the transportation? It was like, the law was up there, they could read it, but they didn't believe what it said. They also asked, What are Choice programs? Is it alright to phase-in a program? Is it OK to start at the early elementary levels, and is it OK to do schools within schools? Those kinds of issues came up frequently, especially among districts that couldn't afford the transportation, were very small or had no buses. "Given our situation," they would ask, "what do we do?" The conversations would sometimes last half an hour or an hour because one statement would lead to another question. Basically, I think they wanted to know, What do we do?
DeVore: What do you think motivated so many questions along those lines'?
Mayhew: School people have been reacting to the lack of quality Schools of Choice models and the lack of research data. They seemed to want the Department to provide more technical assistance, or the legislation to provide them with more parameters in the design of Schools of Choice. I, personally, like the statute and its lack of definition, as it allows flexibility for local committees to design a program according to local needs and concerns.
DeVore: That's something that we were noticing about the legislation. It does not appear to define Choice. It doesn't give the legislature's vision of Choice. Perhaps the "Questions and Answers" materials, to some extent, circuitously describe the legislature's vision of Choice.
Mayhew: The Department of Education was authorized by the statute to provide technical assistance to districts requesting it. The Department attempted to define the Schools of Choice language in the context of Public Act 25 and ongoing initiatives with which districts were familiar. The suggestion came from the Office of the Attorney General that the Department refrain from defining the parameters of Schools of Choice because local committees were authorized to do that. The "Questions and Answers" document which was issued in March by the State Superintendent attempted to provide guidance on many of the questions which were received via telephone.
There is currently still some debate on what constitutes a School of Choice: Does it have to be a distinct building, or can it be a school within a school, or a program within a program, etc. The Office of the Attorney General, which was involved in much of the history of this legislation, 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.
DeVore: Even if it's a logistically and managerially distinct school'?
Mayhew: See, the East Harlem model comes to mind, and there they've got several schools within a school; sometimes they're differentiated by floors. I think that as we move toward the core curriculum, you can have programs within programs, or you can have science immersion programs, and that almost constitutes a school within a school if you offer it as an elective with parental agreement. I think that those are all Schools of Choice, but the attorney general, who was apparently privy to a lot of the legislative deliberations, believes that the legislature thought that Choice meant actual travel to a different building.
I would like to amend the language of the law to include several options, so it would not limit Choice programs to those options, but rather say that these are acceptable examples of Choice programs. There are a number of districts in this state – Wyandotte, Forest Hills, and a lot of the suburban ones around Grand Rapids, for example – that are very small and don't have any busing systems. But I don't think that because of that they should be exempt from creating Programs of Choice or should discriminate against kids who can't access those programs because they lack transportation. So schools within schools and learning style choices all seem to be legitimate means of offering Choice.
DeVore: If you had to distinguish your vision of Choice from the legislature's and, by extension, the attorney general's ...
Mayhew: I don't think any of these visions are opposed to one another. I think more detail and more technical assistance will provide more breadth and depth to that vision. Language changes to the statute or administrative rules may help define the vision for local implementation. This will take some time. I do believe that the Michigan Constitution limits the scope of Schools of Choice legislation due to the local autonomy provision.
My vision is that through the school improvement planning and core curriculum provision of Public Act 25, choices will result because once those processes are in place, districts will be able to offer distinct learning style and curricular choices. We won't be offering K-Mart high schools, where geography is the only choice. Rather, the merchandise will become distinct, over time.
DeVore: So the legislation, in a sense, is almost premature?
Mayhew: Yes. They did it, and I'm glad they did it, but now they've delayed it for a year. That's fine, because they couldn't pay for the transportation. That gives us another year to plan core curriculum and school improvement. That's fine. They did it and caused an uproar which needed to happen and raised the consciousness level, but then they delayed it. Questions such as, "Why can't I take my child across a district boundary?" and "When will that legislation be in place that would allow us to go somewhere else?" still come in from people who live on a district border and who want to go a different school district. I don't know if we're ever going to get them in this state, but I hope we do.
DeVore: Despite all the confusion that the legislation's lack of guidelines may have caused, you nevertheless think that leaving the legislation somewhat vague might have encouraged innovation?
Mayhew: I think that that was the plan, in addition to obeying the constitutional constraints. If we superimpose upon local districts a specific Choice plan, or the design of a certain type of School of Choice, it may not fit the needs of the local community. We are not as creative in education as we should be. I think the mason for the Schools of Choice legislation was to respond to a perceived need and to force creativity. It will work, as time goes on. Hopefully.
DeVore: What do you think undermines the creative impetus that one might otherwise expect to find among administrators? Is it the structure of the school system, vested interests ...
Mayhew: All of those as well as the fact that it is very comfortable to stay with the status quo. I think any kind of change – and we're faced with it in Public Act 25 – just causes more anxiety than people are able to deal with. In this state, and I think, in this nation, people have always looked for quick fixes and don't look at the long term and what we want kids to look like when they graduate, what the work force will look like, what the world looks like and how to prepare them. It's just easy to stay in an industrial mode of "factory schools" rather than looking beyond that and seeing how we can provide through technology, the community, internship experiences and other means what kids need. I don't think that the schoolhouse is the only way that kids learn, but it's often seen as too risky to get beyond that.
DeVore: Is there anything being done by way of follow-up to study Michigan districts to see what has been done?
Mayhew: Yes. We plan to collect some data and provide some technical assistance and relate it to school improvement planning and core curriculum planning. We'll do it, but it's going to take some time. And we do have that luxury a little bit now. The first thing I think we need is your research and the data about who's doing what. Then we need to conduct a survey to find out who did the election and what training needs are out there. There's a network of school improvement people at the intermediate ISD level who will be able to provide technical assistance; I plan to bring Choice to them and get them up to speed so that they can help the local districts. That should begin in the fall.
DeVore: Do you currently know how many districts state-wide have been exempted by vote?
Mayhew: No. But MASA had a call-in survey of superintendents in their newsletter asking them to call in if it was on the ballot and tell what happened. They might have done a formal survey as well.
DeVore: My focus has been on districts that have done something with Choice. I've seen papers from around the Lansing and Detroit areas, but I haven't researched how many districts sought exemption overall.
Mayhew: Several middle cities districts received an exemption from the electorate. They're going to continue their Schools of Choice program. It's just that they didn't want to do the transportation. The law now allows anybody who had a Schools of Choice (or any kind of an enrollment options plan) in place before October, 1991, to continue without modifying it.
DeVore: Do you have any idea how many districts that affects?
Mayhew: There are a lot of them. Probably all middle-cities districts have some sort of Choice in operation. We need to find out what that looks like, too. There's never been a survey. That's a problem I had, too, when I was doing the State Board Position Paper on Schools of Choice because this department has never collected any data on what kind of enrollment options exist out there. So, we don't know what exists. Take Vocational Education is that a school of Choice? Schools all over the state offer programs like that.
DeVore: What I've found is that a lot of districts simply formalized their old transfer policies in order to comply with the law. That might mean adding in transportation, it might mean using a random lottery selection process rather than a subjective case-by-case approach, or the assembly of informational materials
Mayhew: That's the thing I've argued significantly with many superintendents who told me that they had a Schools of Choice program already and that parents could call them if they wanted to select an alternate school. That's the problem: parents didn't know it. So, my contention was that you don't have Choice if everybody doesn't know that they have Choice, and so the information campaign, if districts do that, will go a long way toward making sure that people have Choice. But the subjectiveness of all that is a problem, too.
DeVore: Only a few documents that I've obtained actually provide much detailed information about what information districts will provide. The Choice policy will generally state that information of such-and-such a kind will be provided from specified district sources. Only a few districts provided school profiles and school comparison grids.
Mayhew: I think that's neat, and we can get to that point through curriculum reform, but very often people aren't making choices of curriculum. They're making choices of distance, teachers, discipline, babysitting. I think we've got a lot of work to do in that respect so that people make educational choices. But I haven't heard that on the phone when people – parents especially – call me. They don't like a principal, or they don't like a building. We've got a lot of educating of the public to do. The annual report that's required through Public Act 25 I think can eventually become the vehicle or the catalogue because all districts, building by building, are required to publish an annual report and to present it to their community at a building-level meeting. So that can become a nice document for making choices as time goes on, but we're not there yet.
DeVore: Another common barrier, I've discovered, at least in certain parts of the state, is space availability. Given the legislation, neighborhood students cannot be bumped for the sake of someone else's Choice. Many districts reported that they simply don't have much space to juggle people around, considering local demographic trends. Do you have any ideas as to how districts might innovate to overcome that obstacle?
Mayhew: I've heard that, too, and I don't believe it. Number one, there's declining enrollments all over this state. But, number two, even if schools are full, administrators don't know if any kids in a given building want to get out. They have not done that survey, and so I don't buy the argument that, "We don't have space to do Choice." If you have five kids who want out of a given building, you can then take five new kids into that building.
If you have a given number of chairs and there are districts who are full people can switch chairs from here to there and vice versa. But that question-who wants to move--hasn't been asked. Why don't the) just do the survey and find out how many people want to move before they make the statement, "We can't do Choice because we don't have room?" They don't know that they don't have room until they ask that question. It may be that for a three-year period, there will not be room in some buildings until students graduate from that building, chairs become available, and the new kids who would attend that building have choices of other buildings also. So I think it's going to be gradual; it's going to take an amount of time. But I don't think "There's no space available" is an adequate response.
DeVore: Detailed planning and sufficient time for it are surely important as well. One can't wake up Monday and have real, meaningful Choice by Friday.
Mayhew: I don't think people realize that either. I'm not even sure that the legislature recognized that when they passed the bill. You really need to plan this in a concerted fashion, you know, you can't do it by Friday.
DeVore: Do you think that the timeline should have been longer?
Mayhew: A planning year would have helped, and perhaps some pilots. You know, have every district required to do one School of Choice, then phase the rest in over a five-year period. That would have linked it indisputably to the school improvement legislation. A lot of districts already are into strategic planning. If they threw Choice into the hopper, they could tell their people that they're into strategic planning, and that they have a five-year plan. I don't see what the problem is with phasing-in Choice programs, as long as everybody in their district knows that during year one, it's this, year two, it's that, and by the sixth year, every student will have Choice. I didn't see anything in the legislation that would prohibit that. The attorney general said that it was in there, but I couldn't find it.
DeVore: I know of districts that expressed some frustration and confusion over that very point about phasing-in programs of Choice. St. Johns is an example.
Mayhew: Well, I had a lot of conversations with St. Johns people; they were on the phone constantly, and [ did give them that interpretation early on, and then I told them what the attorney general said, but [ didn't tell them that they had to change. I think that if districts are making a good faith effort to comply, we're not going to do anything to them.
The legislation allowed the committees to define Choice and build a plan. And if the committee built a five-year plan, it seems like the district would be violating the trust of the committee by not implementing its plan. In fact, they must implement the plan the committee develops, according to the law. Administrators are not allowed to juggle it and implement it in pieces at administrative convenience. So it seems like it would be a violation not to implement a five-year plan if that's what the committee recommended.
DeVore: I notice that Lansing put out a very, very comprehensive . . .
Mayhew: Yes. I saw the plan. I believe that they hired Public Sector Consultants to help with it, along with the committee.
DeVore: It had a very thorough timeline and seemed well-organized.
Mayhew: I liked it a lot. In fact, I called the superintendent and told him that I liked it a lot. They weren't going to start anything next year, and I thought the legislation required that something begin to be in place starting next year. I said that before the legislation passed to delay it for a year. Now it doesn't anymore. The superintendent said, well, he was cognizant of that, but he liked their plan a whole lot and they would just go ahead with it.
DeVore: When I last spoke to somebody from Lansing, the district was undecided, but would probably go forward. They were certainly exempt for a year, they said, because they don't have June elections.
Mayhew: Lansing was exempt from implementation due to the fact that they did not have a June election. They were therefore required to begin implementation during the 1993-94 school year under the original legislation.
DeVore: It seemed like a few districts' committees said in their reports, "This isn't as complete as we'd like, we wish we'd had more time."
Mayhew: Now they've got a year. Hopefully, districts will reconvene those committees and use the year to plan. There was nothing in the law, but I think they should have put a provision in there that made a standing committee locally to make sure that the plan gets enacted. A lot of districts, I think, disbanded their committees, and I don't think they should have.
DeVore: One objection that some folks have made to the actual structure and timing of the legislation to what extent Public Act 25 is relevant here is an open question in that it 'put the cart before the horse' in the sense that there were no incentives for districts to diversify course offerings before offering Choice, and so you end up with districts saying, in effect, "Fine, pick. But because of efforts to assure equity, the offerings of the schools are as nearly identical as we can manage." So students get choices among apples, no oranges.
Mayhew: A lot of districts are saying that. I think the legislature in this state is really frustrated at the scores and the performance of students. In their haste for reform, they're just demanding it. I like what they've done with Public Act 25, and I like what they've done with Schools of Choice, but I think they didn't realize that what's out there is very similar and there aren't any choices. Now I think they might realize that in hindsight and know that as a result of Public Act 25 there will be choices. But it's not going to be tomorrow. But maybe John Q. Public just wants the choice of distance. I don't think that's a choice. It's going to take a long time. In my life time, I hope to see some differentiated curriculum, enhanced equity, all of that, then Choice.
DeVore: Do you think that if schools were given more autonomy . . . there's an irony here : if you require districts to give autonomy to schools, then in a sense you're constraining the district's administration but do you think that Choice, instituted vis a vis autonomy, could or would provide curricular and pedagogical diversification? Instead of saying that step number one is to diversify and step number two is Choice, what if the legislature said that step number one were to loosen up the constraints on buildings and teachers, and step two were to allow variety to develop as each building gains unique features. Then Choice follows naturally.
Mayhew: By and large that will happen in the more affluent areas of the state and in the districts that are large enough to diversify and then have curriculum resources and instructional diversity. That won't happen in every district in this state, so I think you have to mandate first, and then provide technical assistance to help them get to the vision. Right now, what all of it looks like from this vantage point Public Act 25, as well as Choice, is chaos out there.
But there's a lot happening. It's just going to take some time and a lot of assistance to iron it all out. Currently, I'm working on a five-year plan for this agency for curriculum development that was my old job, but 1'm still working on it because of the tie-in with school improvement. Getting that plan in place would take some restructuring of this agency, too, and I think that we're going to do it. I have a lot of hope for this plan. It's a systematic, methodical move toward the vision. Choice is part of that vision. We can do that, but there's been too much of a laissez-faire attitude about school districts and I think there needs to be more state control, but more state assistance also.
This department is about 95 percent federally funded. And those are initiatives from the federal government – not that the state does not agree with those initiatives – but our reason for existence has primarily been the monitoring of those federal programs, rather than a pro-active technical assistance role to change curriculum. So we're moving, we're changing. And I think it's because of the Michigan Constitution and the local issues that I think you'll find that other states which have more state control are further ahead in terms of curriculum development than we are in terms of change.
DeVore: How about an alternative such as chartering? Do you think that chartering will only be feasible in larger or suitably structured districts?
Mayhew: Well, the governor wants to initiate some chartered schools. Although they didn't have the money to fund them this year, I think that they will be funded in time. I think you have to be very careful with those because they can become very elitist and non-equitable. I think a charter idea, if it's equitably established, is another way to get to Choice, and a great idea. I'd like to start a school myself. But I don't want to see people "creaming" the kids off the top and just doing "gifted" or "talented" schools; what about the low-achieving kids? What chartered schools will they be able to attend? And are they only going to be able to get into the ones for low-achieving kids? I don't want that to happen.
There's an equity issue, too: Are girls going to be exempt from getting into math schools or science immersion programs? I think that you have to be very careful with that, but providing some seed money for innovation is a great idea. I really wanted some seed money to do some innovation with pilot programs and Schools of Choice to begin with, before we went full scale into implementation, but we did it backwards.
DeVore: Are there other ways in which you think the legislation could have been improved, in addition to those you've already mentioned?
Mayhew: I have a whole folder on that. [Laughs.] Yes.
DeVore: If you have a document prepared on it we could run it as an appendix. Mayhew: No, it's an internal document.
DeVore: Would you then describe some of them?
Mayhew: There's a couple of them:
Schools within schools, learning style choices, pedagogical choices and curriculum magnets should be allowed as methods of compliance; that needs to be included in the law.
We might have to do guidelines instead of amending the law to do all this, but I think the relationships among Choice and other ongoing initiatives like school improvement, strategic planning, the annual report, phasing-in all those things need either to be put in the legislation or spelled out in guidelines. The State Board is allowed to issue guidelines. I don't know if they will; there's always been hesitancy about that because it takes two years. First you have to do administrative hearings all over the state, so I don't know if they'll do that, but if we get some resources we probably will.
Allow districts to develop alternative enrollment systems and procedures to allow for a stratified random sample. That currently isn't allowed, it's only the random selection, a lottery, if you will, that's allowed. But for districts who are trying either to maintain integration or enhance integration, that random means is a problem.
I suggested that the transportation requirement should be deleted for out-of-formula districts or they should be allowed to collect the 20 percent increase that's proposed in transportation without the increase, being subject to the recapture that districts are currently subject to.
Pilots; we need another pot of money to create some pilots. If we need to create a recipe, then we could at least take some steps in that direction, especially because people seem to be having a lot of problems with that.
We need to collect some data about what's going on.
Some language to ensure that the local Schools of Choice planning committee shall work in conjunction with the school improvement team and the core curriculum team to ensure coordination with school improvement planning and core curriculum and reporting to the community through the annual report.
I would also like to see something in the legislation to define what the "open enrollment period" is. Now I'm getting calls from people saying, "They had the open enrollment from midnight to two o'clock one day." That needs to be strengthened so that there is really an official open enrollment period that everybody knows about.
I think the "adequate information" needs to be defined also, so that districts do in fact provide parents enough information so that they can make an adequately informed choice, if they care about real choices like personal choices. You could define it in terms of the annual education report.
Partial implementation or the phase-in approach should be included in the law.
I think the transportation requirement – I haven't thought this through yet – needs to be put back; this current law took it out. It took the money out and it took the requirement out. Poor kids, and kids who don't have access to transportation, are not going to be able to avail themselves of Choice if we don't put that requirement back in. I know that it's a Headlee issue, because if you require it, them you have to pay something toward it, and I don't know how to get around that. Maybe we have to bite the bullet and pay for it. If we want Choice, then maybe we have to pay for transportation.
So that's about it, for now. Probably in another couple weeks I'll have 20 more suggestions.
DeVore: If you come up with any more by the time I send you a transcript of this interview, certainly feel free to include those.
Mayhew: It's going to be great to have a person here to sit down with and not only design surveys to find out what's going on out there, but once the person gets out there, to find out what technical assistance districts really need in order to do this. I hope not every district in the state passed the referendum not to do Schools of Choice.
DeVore: It's my impression that not all that many did.
Mayhew: But most people who put it on the ballot did pass it.
DeVore: True, but I think that the districts putting it on the ballot compose a small subset of Michigan districts. But for all I know, the 350 or whatever districts I didn't contact all put it on the ballot. [Mutual laughter.] My perception is that most districts went ahead and did something, however slight. What I'm calling the "problem" is that it seldom involved much innovation. But maybe that goes back to space availability in many districts.
Mayhew: I think that's part of the information. You say, "We only have three slots this year, but when more people avail themselves of this opportunity we'll have more slots available." And maybe for the first couple of years, they have to have two open enrollment period during the year, in September and then in January. I don't think that we want to allow kids – as I've told many districts – to run all over the district all yearlong. I think that the committee should have said, "This is our enrollment period, and once you're in a building, unless something dire happens, you're in that building for the year, but you don't have to stay in that building for the duration of your career."
DeVore: We took a look at that aspect of the different plans. The vast majority of districts said that students get one year enrollment stability. After that, you have to reapply.
Mayhew: See, I don't think that's fair either.
DeVore: It's a tremendous disincentive, I think.
Mayhew: It is.
DeVore: I mean, you're not going to put your kid in a building ...
Mayhew: if it's too risky. I think what they should have done- is provide an option every year to sign up for a different building, but once you're in, you're in if you want to stay.
DeVore: That's something we'd recommend. That way you provide stability to those . . .
Mayhew: who took the risk. And I like the sibling piece. It only says "may;" well, I guess that's permissive.
DeVore: A few schools bounced the other way on the stability question, and said, Once you're in, you're in. If you opt into this high school, you're in it for four years.
Mayhew: I don't like that either. You know what that is? It's administrative convenience. That's keeping the status quo.
DeVore: Is there anything you'd like to add, any other topics you'd like to cover?
Mayhew: No, not for the record.