$131,000 for Five Students?

Reversing the position it took in May, the Freeland School Board has voted to allow some students from other districts to attend its schools through the state schools-of-choice program. Just not very many. 

Freeland's decision appears to be an attempt to game state policy in order to pad its budget. The district is allowing an extraordinarily limited number of students from outside districts to attend its schools in order to access additional state funding. This has implications for how the state aims to use additional per-pupil funding to encourage districts to make policy changes.

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At its June meeting, the school board voted to allow up to five additional kindergarten students from other districts to attend Freeland schools. This may sound strange, since recently a survey of 650 Freeland residents found that more than 70 percent were strongly opposed to opening up the district. Further, in May the school board voted against becoming a schools-of-choice district.  

According to the district’s board meeting report, Freeland Superintendent Matthew Cairy, however, told the school board during its June meeting that it might be prudent to reconsider their vote. Under the state's "best practices" incentive program, if a school district meets seven of eight best practices, it receives additional state money based on the number of students enrolled in the district. The Freeland district, Cairy said during the board meeting, could meet six of the best practice with little difficulty.

To meet the last best practice, the district could either provide health or physical education in line with state policy, or become a school of choice district by opening its schools up to students from other districts.

According to the board meeting report, meeting the health education best practice would require additional staff time and class space, and was not worth the additional state money. But it seems that offering a few students attendance promised a better financial return.

The board meeting notes read: “In light of the deficit budget for 2012-2013, Supt. Cairy recommended that the Board re-consider the Schools of Choice option.” And the board agreed, voting to allow up to five kindergarten students attend Freeland schools for the 2012-13 school year. If five kindergarten students actually enroll, the Freeland district's total enrollment will increase by less than 0.3 percent.

As a result, the Midland Daily News reports that the district could receive $131,000 in incentive money from the state. That comes to $26,200 per kindergartner, much more than the $8,065 the Freeland district reports spending per-student.

Given the incentives in place (a community opposed to opening up its district, a blunt state incentive and a budget deficit), Cairy and the Freeland board acted in a rational, self-interested way in order to get their district more money.

However, Freeland’s use of the best practices incentives raises questions about the program. If one of the goals of the program is to help students in failing districts have access to better options, is allowing just five students in accomplishing that goal? What about just one student? 

What if a district allows choice in such a limited way that no students are feasibly able to attend the district? Such a scenario seems possible, and when large sums of state money are at stake, it doesn't make much sense to reward districts merely for "participating."

In light of the Freeland district's actions, it may be wise to reconsider how participation in the schools-of-choice program is evaluated and rewarded. Instead of rewarding token participation, the state could require that districts pass some objective threshold. The state could require that districts free up at least 1 percent of student seats in order to be considered truly participating in schools of choice.


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