District Discretion

School districts have the ultimate discretion over whether to enroll students through Schools of Choice.[18] Each school year, districts determine whether to accept nonresident students through Schools of Choice, either section 105 (intra-ISD) or section 105c (inter-ISD), or both. They also determine whether to limit the number of nonresident students accepted.[19] Districts choosing to enroll Schools of Choice students can limit enrollment by grade, school or special program.[20] Districts must notify the general public of Schools of Choice availability, and use a random lottery to select which students get to enroll if the number of nonresident applicants exceeds the number of seats the district has made available.[21]

Research suggests that school districts have used this discretion, at least in the past, for their own perceived benefit. In a 2000 Mackinac Center report, Matthew Ladner and Matthew Brouillette noted that during the 1999-2000 school year, just 17,440 students participated in Schools of Choice. They wrote:

The public “schools-of-choice” program has had very limited impact on school districts, primarily because only those districts that wish to participate do so. The ability of districts to restrict competition severely limits the good it might otherwise do.[22]

In a 1999 Michigan State University study, David Arsen, David Plank and Gary Sykes argued that some districts use Schools of Choice only selectively. The authors wrote:

From our interviews with school administrators, it is apparent that suburban school boards consider the racial composition of their own enrollments when they decide whether to participate in inter-district choice. For example, all of the districts bordering Benton Harbor have “opted out” of inter-district choice. Other districts have chosen to participate in inter-district choice but have managed their participation to ensure that the inflow does not significantly increase their percentage of minority students.[23]

Though some districts may have elected to selectively enroll students through Schools of Choice previously, the number of students using Schools of Choice has more than doubled from 40,753 to 99,301 during the past 10 years and the number of districts enrolling students through Schools of Choice has increased dramatically as well.[*] During the 2011-12 school year, 410 school districts (75 percent) reported enrolling at least one student through 105 Choice, and 343 districts (62 percent) reported enrolling at least one student through 105c Choice.[†] In total, 493 districts reported losing at least one student through 105 Choice, and 464 districts reported losing at least one student through 105c Choice.[24]

Some school districts have opted to use Schools of Choice to alleviate budgetary problems. For the 2013-14 school year, for example, the Lake Orion school district was facing a loss of $1.8 million in revenue, and began to use Schools of Choice for the first time, opening up nonresident enrollment for up to 175 kindergartners. Lake Orion Superintendent Marion Ginopolis wrote: “We think a restricted Schools of Choice program will actually help save the current award-winning instructional programs for our 7,800 resident students.”[25]

In comparison, the Milan district has long accepted students through Schools of Choice, but is working to attract more. About 22 percent of the students enrolled in the district in the 2011-12 school year came through Schools of Choice. Superintendent Bryan Girbach announced that the district would undertake a marketing campaign for the 2013-14 school year to attract more students by advertising its curriculum, Advanced Placement courses and “alternative” education programs.[26]

A few districts still have residents strongly opposed to participating in Schools of Choice, and school officials in some districts investigate enrolled students suspected of being nonresidents.[27] Grosse Pointe, one such district, investigated more than 180 students suspected of being nonresidents during the 2011-12 school year, and denied enrollment to 42 students.[28] Many of the districts that have barred or severely limited Schools of Choice students, including the Grosse Pointe, Birmingham, Bloomfield Hills, Rochester and Freeland districts, are near academically struggling districts — the Detroit, Pontiac and Saginaw districts, respectively.[29]

The Michigan Department of Education does not collect data on whether school districts limit choice by grade or program.[30] It is not possible to determine how many districts severely limit the seats made available to Schools of Choice students, or if more students would participate in Schools of Choice if more seats were made available.

Requiring districts to participate in Schools of Choice has been recently debated in Michigan. Gov. Rick Snyder promoted this idea in 2011 and said, “Providing open access to a quality education without boundaries is essential. No longer should school districts be allowed to opt out from accepting out-of-district students.”[31] The proposal drew outcry from some school district officials and criticism from the Michigan Association of School Boards.[32] A bill was introduced, but it was not passed by the Legislature.[33]

More recent state-level attempts to increase districts’ level of participation in Schools of Choice have taken the form of financial incentives. For the 2011-12 school year, districts could qualify for the “Best Practice Incentive” and additional per-pupil funding by complying with a list of objectives, one of which was to participate in Schools of Choice.[‡]

The best practices grant awarded districts a certain amount per student enrolled in the district, though districts could choose to limit the number of seats available under Schools of Choice to just a few students. Therefore, Schools of Choice participation could qualify a district for hundreds of thousands of dollars in state money, though the district may have only opened just a few seats to nonresident students.[§]

[*]  These tallies exclude pre-Kindergarten and adult education students, as well as apparent incomplete records in the 2011-12 CEPI data file. “Non-Resident Student Research Tool” (Center for Educational Performance and Information, 2012), accessed Jul. 25, 2012, http://goo.gl/HdmaEU.

[†]  Though some districts, such as Chelsea, have technically participated in Schools of Choice without actually admitting a nonresident student, Schools of Choice “participation” is defined here as a school district enrolling a nonresident student. Audrey Spalding, “Reducing ‘Best Practices’ Money Best for Taxpayers” (Mackinac Center for Public Policy, Feb. 15, 2013), accessed Nov. 1, 2013, http://goo.gl/P6oH4I; “Non-Resident Student Research Tool” (Center for Educational Performance and Information, 2012), accessed July 25, 2012, http://goo.gl/HdmaEU.

[‡]  Under Gov. Snyder’s proposed budget for fiscal years 2014 and 2015, districts could receive $16 per student for meeting specified best practices.  For the 2013-14 school year, districts can receive $52 per pupil for meeting best practices, including accepting nonresident students. Carol Wolenberg, Venessa Keesler and Joseph Martineau, “Guidance on 2013-2014 Best Practice Incentive, Section 22f” (Michigan Department of Education, Aug. 29, 2013), accessed Oct. 23, 2013, http://goo.gl/8AFZCV; Rick Snyder and John Nixon, “Executive Budget: Fiscal Years 2014 and 2015” (Michigan Department of Technology, Management and Budget, Feb. 7, 2013) accessed Oct. 23, 2013, http://goo.gl/HkosG

[§]  Several districts, including the Birmingham, Freeland, Chelsea and Rochester school districts, have recently elected to participate in Schools of Choice in a severely limited way in order to access that funding. See Audrey Spalding, “Birmingham Latest District to Exploit Schools of Choice” (Mackinac Center for Public Policy), accessed Nov. 1, 2013, http://goo.gl/zSQAqU.