The Dearborn experience shows that school districts that respond to the needs and demands of students and parents will improve and thrive in a competitive environment.
The response of the Dearborn City School District demonstrates the kind of positive impact competition can have on traditional government schools and the benefits of competition for children.
Dearborn is a large urban district with nearly 16,000 students. A "first ring suburb," it lies adjacent to the city of Detroit. Dearborn receives a relatively high level of state assistance, but has more serious problems than elite suburbs. Approximately 35 percent of Dearborn students are economically disadvantaged, qualifying for the federal free- or reduced-lunch program, a poverty rate seven times higher than that of the nearby Livonia district.27 As a destination for many Arab immigrants, Dearborn assimilates a large number of limited-English-speaking students into its schools.
In 1991, a publication called Public Schools USA evaluated the Dearborn district and other districts around the country to serve as a reference for parents. Observers interviewed for this publication had a number of negative things to say about the Dearborn district. Parents complained of not being involved in curriculum development or other important aspects of school affairs. A former PTA officer was quoted as saying "I was never asked for input, nor do I know of any other PTA people who were asked for input." Another observer opined that "the curriculum is in an overall downward slide." Most condemning of all, one observer interviewed for the report said, "If I were moving to this area, I would never, ever purchase a home in Dearborn."28
It is therefore understandable that, beginning in the early 1990s, Dearborn would experience a dramatic increase in the level of competition for students. By the end of the decade, four charter schools were operating within the Dearborn district, with additional charters in the adjoining Melvindale and Detroit districts. The adjoining Dearborn Heights district also serves as another option for students because of the "schools-of-choice" program.
When interviewing Dearborn officials today, one might expect to hear complaints about the "lack of fairness" of competition, or perhaps the argument that choice programs drain money and students from traditional districts, making it "impossible" for them to turn themselves around. This is not the case, however.
According to Dr. Jeremy Hughes, superintendent of the Dearborn City School District, "We welcome competition. The reforms we've enacted would not have happened, at least not as fast, without competition." Rather than waiting for students to leave the district for charter schools or neighboring districts, Dearborn began preparing to compete for students "when the ink was barely dry on the charter school legislation," says Hughes. Rather than falling into a cycle of decline, Dearborn City Schools have risen to the challenge of competition in the 1990s. Due to these aggressive efforts, Dearborn enrollment has increased from 14,229 in 1994-95 to 16,263 in 1998-99.29
Dr. Hughes believes that charter and traditional government schools compete "on a level playing field." For example, he points out that while charter schools do not provide transportation for their studentsa common complaint from superintendents of traditional public schoolsneither do they receive transportation funds. The state of Michigan holds charter schools to the same financial standards as traditional government schools, as well as requiring them to adhere to the same academic standard: Charter-school students must take the Michigan Educational Assessment Program exams.30
According to Dr. Hughes, the key to competing in this new environment was the creation of a "Theme Schools and Academies Program." The administration believed the best way to deal with competition from charter schools was to take the initiative: Give parents what they want so they will not seek it outside the district's schools.
The district leadership recognized that different parents desire different programs for their children. The appeal of charter or private schools to parents often lies in the school's particular approach to education. The Theme Schools and Academies Program allows existing Dearborn schools to develop specialized programs to satisfy the diverse preferences of parents and students.
The program's offerings include character education, creative arts, engineering technology, extended school year, multi-age classes, gifted and talented, history and others. Parents have the opportunity to send their children to a particular "theme school" if they find it desirable, and can likewise avoid a particular theme if they find it undesirable. In other words, Dearborn has created a mechanism for a degree of parental choice in education within the context of a government school district.
Dr. Hughes is confident that Dearborn can attract and retain students in a competitive environment. In fact, many programs that a charter school might offer are already available to students in Dearborn schools. A brief description of Dearborn's Academies and Theme Schools can be found in Appendix II.
Dr. Hughes also notes that by allowing parents to choose their children's curriculum, the Dearborn model avoids conflict between parents and school administrators. For instance, the Dearborn model gives those parents who desire character education the chance to have their children participate in a "character education theme school" while allowing others to avoid this instruction and choose another.
The Dearborn experience shows that school districts that respond to the needs and demands of students and parents will improve and thrive in a competitive environment, depending on the attitude and approach of school leaders.