Choice program has few options for students

Genesee County plan one of state's most restrictive

This article originally appeared in the Flint Journal on May 14, 2001 at http://fl.mlive.com/news/index.ssf?/news/stories/20010514f14a1choicestory.frm.

By Matt Bach
JOURNAL EDUCATION WRITER

It's called schools of choice, but the countywide plan that lets students living in one district attend another falls far short of giving Genesee County parents and students true choice.

Of the 951 students who wanted out of their local school districts last year, 173 or 18 percent were denied through the Genesee Intermediate School District's choice plan. Ten percent of those were denied because of a 2 percent cap the districts have in accepting and releasing students.

In Lapeer County, only one student out of 104 requesting transfers was denied.

The most difficult schools in Genesee County to get out of are Beecher, Atherton and Westwood Heights, according to last year's figures.

The most difficult schools to get into are Flushing, which doesn't allow any students in through schools of choice, Carman-Ainsworth, Atherton, Genesee, Mt. Morris and Westwood Heights. Most of these schools held lotteries last year to determine either student release or acceptance.

The 2 percent cap makes Genesee County's schools of choice plan one of the most restrictive in the state, said Scott Jenkins, policy coordinator for the State Government Affairs Division.

"It's not anything that's unlawful, but it's picking winners and losers and they are restricting the flow of students," Jenkins said. "The real issue should be how the schools provide a good education for these kids no matter what their zip code is. People who defend (these caps) are really talking about jobs for adults and they are not talking about educational quality provided to kids."

While 173 students in Genesee County were denied last year, an even larger number could be denied this year because there are still the same number of slots available and preference is given to those who have already been approved through the plan. More slots became available last year when the cap was raised from 1 percent to 2 percent.

The window when parents can apply to transfer their students through the schools of choice program starts today and closes 4 p.m. June 8.

Genesee County superintendents defended the plan, saying they raised the cap last year to 2 percent to give more students choice. They also offer options through other programs, including Mott Middle College, alternative education, GenNET distance learning classes and starting this fall, online classes, said Thomas Svitkovich, GISD superintendent.

"The notion behind this plan was to give local districts a way to allow students and parents to move to other districts in an orderly fashion," Svitkovich said. "Parents wanted an additional option and we wanted to give it to them."

Svitkovich said many districts also allow an exchange of students outside of what's available in the schools of choice plan. Last year, about 2,170 students attended school in one district but lived in another. Of those, less than half were part of the schools of choice program.

Svitkovich points out that under the 2 percent rule, there are 1,600 spots available countywide, but only 951 people applied.

"The cap is a measurement we use to monitor the program," he said. "The fact is we haven't hit the cap."

But that doesn't help parents who want in or out of individual districts that have hit their limit and either turned people away or refused to let them go. Beecher declined to release 26 students because of the cap last year. Atherton had 20 students refused and Westwood Heights had 14.

Carman-Ainsworth had 53 more students apply than it had room for and Mt. Morris and Atherton each turned away 22 students.

"Is it fair?," said Beecher Superintendent Kenneth Jackson. "You want me to talk about fair in education? I can't speak on fair when it comes to education ... because I don't have time to go into that on this phone.

"If people want good education for each and every child like they would want for their own child, then we wouldn't be having the problems we are having today. A lot of the problems come from selfishness."

Patty Clark and her 9-year-old triplets were among the lucky ones. Her children survived two lotteries - one to get out of Atherton schools and a second to get into the third grade at McGrath Elementary School in Grand Blanc.

"(Schools of choice) is working out really well for us," Clark said. "I was very disappointed in my home district and the programs available."

But critics say the GISD plan only appears to be an option.

"There are a number of districts across the state that entered into what we would consider gentlemen's agreements of, 'I will release 30 students to your district if you release 30 students to my district.' But this is2 a facade of choice, rather than the reality of choice," said Matthew Brouillette, education policy director for the Midland-based Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a conservative, non-profit education and research institute.

About seven ISDs in the state operate like the GISD by having a cap on the number of students who can leave, but most districts restrict the number that can come in due to space limitations, Jenkins said.

Kent County had a 1 percent cap in place until this year when officials there decided to remove the cap to give students more options. The decision by the Kent County superintendents came on the heels of articles in the Grand Rapids Press that showed the plan's heavy restrictions fell far short of lawmakers' expectations.

Genesee County plan began in 1997 and was modeled after the Kent County program, said Atherton Superintendent John Hemingway.

But area superintendents said what is happening in Kent County should not affect the Genesee County plan.

"The concern that our plan doesn't meet lawmakers' expectations is one interpretation," Svitkovich said. "If the lawmakers had that true intention, they could've written it in the law and made it mandatory for all districts to open the boundaries. But they didn't do that. Let's not interpret what the law says, let's do exactly what the law says."

Matt Bach covers education and the Flint School District. He can be reached at (810) 766-6330 or mbach@flintjournal.com.

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