School choice advocates have long argued that competition will improve all schools, but even they might be surprised by new data that suggest the mere possibility of competition is causing some districts' graduation rates to soar.
As signatures are being collected for the Kids First! Yes! school voucher proposal, to appear on the 2000 ballot, graduation rates in 26 districts previously labeled as "failing" have shown astonishing improvement.
The Kids First! Yes! proposal calls for state-funded tuition vouchers to be given to families in districts that fail to graduate two-thirds of their students. The families could then use the approximately $3,100-per-year vouchers to send their children to nonpublic schools of their choice.
Using the 1996-97 graduation rates collected by the Michigan Department of Education, Kids First! Yes! initially identified 38 districts as being immediately eligible for vouchers under its plan. But according to the 1997-98 figures, released by the department in September, only 12 districts remain below the two-thirds "failure" threshold.
The Detroit school system- one of the nation's most troubled- showed the most improvement, raising its 1996-97 graduation rate from a dismal 29.8 percent to 83.5 percent in 1997-98, just one year later.
This figure was apparently so unbelievable that Detroit Public Schools spokeswoman Francine Burgess issued a retraction, telling reporters the district's graduation rate almost doubled to 57 percent in 1997-98- still an astounding improvement. However, Department of Education officials stood by the 83.5 percent figure as accurate, based on information supplied by Detroit Public Schools.
Many district administrators account for the rise by saying students who transferred to other schools or enrolled in alternative programs- but still graduated- have gone uncounted in years past and that now they are being counted.
Kids First! Yes! spokesman Matt Latimer said state officials have a responsibility to ensure that the graduation rates reported by the school districts are accurate and are not being doctored.
"If Detroit is in such great shape that they are graduating a lot more kids, that's great. But they haven't done so in the past," he told the Detroit Free Press.