School choice develops in Michigan

Not universal, though school employees get a leg up

Note to our readers:

MER received a detailed inquiry concerning Public Act 227 after we published a "short subject" about the law in our spring 2005 issue. The following article contains information about PA 227 and traces the precedents for school choice in Michigan.

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In 2003, Senate Bill 599 was introduced by Sen. Ray Basham, D-Taylor, to allow a school to admit a nonresident student when the parent of that student is an employee of the school. It was the product of debate about whether it makes sense to allow a school to admit a particular nonresident student without participating in Schools of Choice, while still being able to collect the state foundation grant without the approval of the student’s home district. The bill passed and on July 21, 2004 was signed into law by Gov. Granholm as Public Act 227 of 2004.

This means that under current law a school that does not participate in the Schools of Choice program may allow the nonresident child of an employee to attend, and it will receive the state foundation grant for that student even if the pupil’s district of residence does not grant approval.

It is important to recognize that the law does not require a school district to allow a nonresident child of an employee to attend. However, if a district does allow an employee’s nonresident child to attend, which includes an adopted child or legal ward, then it will get the state foundation money for that student even without the approval of the child’s geographically-assigned school district.

The bill passed the state Senate without opposition, although during House debate some legislators complained that the measure afforded school employees a special privilege not available to other parents. However, the measure still passed in the House, 80-23. The "no" voters included legislators who oppose any form of school choice, as well as those who favor unlimited choice and who believed the bill did not go far enough.

Michigan’s school choice precedents

In 1996, Michigan took a significant step in the direction of introducing competition in public schools. With little fanfare, the Legislature adopted an annual school budget bill that included a limited "public schools of choice" provision. This expanded the ability of a student to attend a public school in a district other than the one in which he or she lived. While there had previously been no absolute prohibition on a student attending a school in another district, the receiving school district could not get funding for the student unless his or her district of residence approved the transfer. Since districts were generally unwilling to part with students and their state money except in extraordinary circumstances, students in practice were unable to attend public schools outside their district of residence.

Coming just two years after the passage of the Proposal A school finance referendum, which transferred the primary responsibility for funding school operation to the state, Public Act 300 of 1996 removed the requirement that the school district of residence approve a student’s transfer to another district within the same Intermediate School District, if the receiving district agreed to participate in the Schools of Choice program. If it did so, then the student’s state "foundation grant" followed him or her to the new district. The pupil’s district of residence had no recourse in the matter — with a few exceptions, the money automatically followed the student. (The most significant exception was made for the Detroit Public Schools. Children there must still get permission from that district before they may take their foundation grant to a school outside the city.)

The concept was expanded with the passage of another budget bill, Public Act 119 of 1999, which allowed a student to take his or her foundation grant to a school of choice in a different ISD that is contiguous with the pupil’s geographically assigned ISD.

The program has proven to be popular — in 2002, more than 30,000 students attended Schools of Choice outside their district of residence. To the extent this has exposed low-performing districts to the prospect of declining pupil counts, it has also increased the incentive for those districts to raise performance levels. Conversely, it provides a means by which they can boost pupil counts by offering superior programs and performance to families outside the district.

If a school district accepts students under either of the "intra-ISD" or "inter-ISD" Schools of Choice programs, it must follow very tightly drawn regulations. These govern the process by which notice is given to parents outside the district, the way that applications are accepted, how students are selected if more want to attend than the district can accommodate, special education students and more. A district can limit how many nonresident students it will accept in a given grade level, but otherwise participation in the Schools of Choice program is an all-or-nothing decision with respect to following these regulations and procedures.

As under the previous law, schools that do not participate in the Schools of Choice program may still allow a nonresident to attend, but unless that student’s district of residence gives the approval, the receiving school will not get state funding for the pupil.