State charter schools see enrollment increases

Urban schools continue to lose students

Two very different stories about school enrollment appeared in Detroit-area newspapers late last year. While the Detroit Free Press was detailing school closures in several districts, The Detroit News was reporting a 13 percent increase in students at local public charter schools.

"It all comes down to one thing," says Dan Quisenberry, executive director of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies. "Those who can, will."

Quisenberry is referring to parents, who year after year are flexing their public school choice muscles, shifting the enrollment landscape between schools, districts and counties.

"We believe in the power of parents," Quisenberry added. "Many are willing to make choices and there is mounting evidence they want more of it."

More than a decade has gone by since the passage of Michigan’s charter school law. Public Act 362 of 1993 paved the way for universities, community colleges, intermediate school districts and conventional public school districts to authorize public school academies, or charter schools. Some 220 charter schools exist in Michigan today, serving an all-time high of 91,000 students. The enrollment surge is even more impressive in Detroit, where charters are now serving 22.5 percent more children than last year.

"That growth would be much, much bigger if more seats were available," Quisenberry said. "There are waiting lists everywhere you go."

Quisenberry points to a recent survey MAPSA conducted in cooperation with the Black Alliance for Educational Options. More than 60 percent of parents in the City of Detroit surveyed said there are not enough education options available to them, and more than half said they have considered moving in order to find those options.

"This isn’t just charter schools," Quisenberry points out. "Parents are always looking to meet the needs of kids. It can be charters or home schooling or parochial or even inter-district choice."

Public Act 300 of 1996 effectively opened much of the state to limited public school choice for the first time by allowing districts to enroll students assigned to other districts in the same ISD. Before 1996, families had to ask permission from the local school board in order for a student to attend school in a different district. The answer virtually every time was "no" because the assigned district wanted to keep the state funding that is tied to the student. The School Aid Act gave some choice to parents, but districts still are able to limit students who want to attend a different school, either by not participating in the program, or not accepting very many students. The law also limits choice, restricting students to school districts within their own intermediate school districts, or, beginning in 1999, school districts in contiguous ISDs. More than two-thirds of Michigan school districts participate in "schools-of-choice" today.

“Every child deserves a quality education and every family deserves a quality school.”

Dan Quisenberry

About 8,000 students used the public school choice opportunity in the 1996-1997 school year, the first it was available. That number quadrupled to more than 33,500 within five years, and has grown steadily since then.

Bill Mayes, executive director of the Michigan Association of School Administrators, said economic factors often play a role in school choice.

"A lot of times it can be because grandma or the babysitter lives in the next school district over," he said. "Or a plant closes down and parents have to go elsewhere for new jobs."

Michigan’s urban school districts have all seen significant enrollment drops in the past 10 years, while some suburban districts have flourished. Detroit Public Schools, for example, has 10,000 fewer students than a year ago, and enrollment is down more than 40,000 from a decade ago. Lansing, Flint and Grand Rapids have all seen public school numbers fall by 4,000 to 5,000 each since 1995. All have closed buildings, including 30 in Detroit.

During the last decade, however, the number of school children in Michigan has grown by roughly 200,000. Not all have gone to public charter schools, and non-public schools have actually seen a decrease in students. However, suburban districts have experienced huge booms in the last decade.

Chippewa Valley, Utica and Warren, all in Macomb County, enroll 4,000-plus more students today than 10 years ago. Plymouth-Canton and Northville, both of Wayne County, have added 4,000 and 1,500 students, respectively, during the same time period. Oakland County’s South Lyon and Walled Lake districts have 2,500 and 3,500 more students, respectively, than 10 years ago, while Howell, in Livingston County, has 1,600 more students. Kalamazoo Public Schools has 2,200 fewer students than a decade ago, and while nearby Portage has not seen a large enrollment increase, the Kalamazoo area’s charter and independent schools serve about 3,600 students collectively.

In other areas of the state, Ann Arbor has added more than 7,000 students since 1995, while Forest Hills, outside Grand Rapids, has 3,000 more. East Lansing, Holt, Mason, Okemos and Eaton Rapids have all experienced small gains in contrast to Lansing’s student losses.

Mayes, formerly the superintendent of the Huron County Intermediate School District, said student loss can apply competitive pressure to rural schools, too, even though the numbers may not look as big.

"For a school in the Thumb to lose 10 or 12 kids, that’s $100,000," he said. "For a rural school, that’s huge."

Part of the reasoning behind the changes in school finance laws during the 1990s, is that when the money follows the student, the school district the student actually attends receives the per-pupil state funding, since the district is responsible for educating the student. The school district the student left no longer has the cost of educating him or her, and therefore does not receive the money.

School choice has spawned a new concept: public schools that advertise. Billboards, bumper stickers, mailings and other ideas have been used by public schools to keep or increase head counts.

"At first, there was some rancor over that," Mayes said. "People said it didn’t seem very professional, and that only attorneys did that. For the most part, districts should just concentrate on what they do well and improve what they don’t do well."

When schools do lose a significant number of students, it can be used as motivation to make changes.

"It can be difficult on the superintendent, on the board, on the whole community," Mayes said. "But when it happens, you need to redouble your efforts, go back to the drawing board and make sure what you’re teaching is providing the best possible education to the kids that you can."

Quisenberry said parents are looking for certain characteristics in a school when they decide to move their children. A rigorous academic environment, quality teachers and safety top the list, he added.

"Every child deserves a quality education and every family deserves a quality school," Quisenberry said. "The question is, what do you do with the schools that are struggling? I’d suggest looking at what they lack in those quality criteria, and fixing it."