3. School Choice in the United States and Michigan

Parents are entrusted to make vital decisions in nearly every area of their children's lives, but most Michigan parents are unable to make true choices about education, one of the most important aspects of their children's development. The vast majority of children are enrolled in the government schools to which they are assigned and they lack the opportunity to gain an education in any other. Nevertheless, some parents have taken drastic measures in order to ensure their children receive the education that best meets their needs.

Dorothy Jones of Midland County, Michigan, simply wanted the best education for her son, Al. So when Ms. Jones changed residences into a new school district, she requested that her son be permitted to remain in the school he was attending prior to their move. Not only did the new school not have the advanced classes that Al had been taking, but he was emotionally distressed over the thought of having to change schools mid-way through his high school education. After being denied a district-to-district transfer request twice by school board members, Dorothy willingly transferred limited guardianship of her son to a family friend who lived in the desired district. Only when a county probate court judge approved the transfer of parental rights was her son able to attend his school-of-choice. His mother asked, "It's a shame that I had to do this, but what else could I do?"87

Similarly, Roger and Kay Pettipas, also from the mid-Michigan area, wanted their son to achieve his fullest potential when they requested a transfer to a government school in another district. After second-grader Rory tested off of the scale in reading comprehension and placed in the "gifted" category in math skills, the Pettipases began to understand why their son had become frustrated and bored in the regular classroom setting. Seven-year-old Rory needed a program in which he would be challenged.

After reviewing the request, the school board refused to allow the $3,800 of state money to follow Rory to the Pettipases' government school-of-choice. The only way for their son to attend his school-of-choice would be if they could come up with an extra $1,800 in tuition. Although the family's income would make it difficult to pay the extra money, they decided they would somehow manage to pay the cost. As a last resort, the family planned to sell their home and move to a better school district—also a costly solution—where Rory's needs could be met. In the end, private donors came to Rory's rescue and he was able to attend his school-of-choice. After transferring to a more challenging curriculum, Rory commented, "My school has a lot of learning in it. I'm really having fun."88

In order for Judy Kincaid's 5-year-old son Quenten to attend their school-of-choice, she used her sister's address in the neighboring Euclid School District in Cleveland, Ohio. However, when school officials discovered that the kindergartner was being picked up from the bus stop and driven away in a westbound direction, away from his government-assigned school district, they investigated.

The 36-year-old mother was indicted on a theft of service charge for sending her son to a neighboring government school. After pleading guilty, she stated, "I put my child in the Euclid school system because I wanted him to have a better life and a better education." For Kincaid's criminal behavior, Euclid Municipal Judge Robert F. Niccum sentenced her to 90 days in jail and ordered her to pay the school district for her son's attendance. After commuting all but five days of her jail sentence and a $500 fine plus court fees, Judge Niccum surprised the courtroom when he ordered her to jail immediately without the opportunity to get her affairs in order.

Prosecutors applauded the judge's harsh sentence and said that it was about time that the judicial system starts getting tough on people "stealing right from the taxpayers."89 Robert McLaughlin, director of pupil personnel for Euclid schools summed up the situation when he said: "I don't like to see anybody go to jail, but people don't understand that this is serious business. Just because you want to go to another school & doesn't mean you can."90

The United States stands increasingly alone among nations of the developed world in denying parents unpenalized choice between government and private schools. Most, if not all, other Western democracies afford parents a significant measure of unpenalized choice, and many formerly communist countries now allow their citizens more choices in education. Ironically, countries with traditions of powerful central governments have so far succeeded in nurturing educational alternatives to government schools to a greater extent than has the United States.

While not every element of these countries' diverse systems is applicable to the United States, the important detail to recognize is that choice is becoming a fundamental component of education systems the world over. Some of the developed countries that offer various forms of choice in education are France, the Netherlands, Belgium, England, West Germany, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Israel, Sweden, and Poland.91

 The lack of full educational choice in the United States stands in stark contrast to the existence of such programs (albeit in many different forms) in most other Western countries and, increasingly, in many developing countries. Nonetheless, many states have attempted to introduce choice-based incentive reforms into their government school systems as a way of harnessing the advantages of the market while improving the current system.

The United States has not led the movement toward greater educational freedom, but it has witnessed a significant surge of progress in the past decade. Both state lawmakers and politically active citizens are addressing education reform with new vigor due to the enormous success—particularly for disadvantaged children—of even limited school choice programs.

In fact, the rapid pace at which education policy is changing across the nation makes it difficult to keep up-to-date on all of the expanding educational options being presented to parents and their children. The following two sections on limited and full educational choice programs operating in Michigan and throughout the country are not meant to provide an exhaustive list, but rather represent a snapshot when this document was written.