Two very different stories about school enrollment appeared
in Detroit-area newspapers late last year. While the Detroit Free Press was
detailing school closures in several districts, The Detroit News was reporting a
13 percent increase in students at local public charter schools.
"It all comes down to one thing," says Dan Quisenberry,
executive director of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies.
"Those who can, will."
Quisenberry is referring to parents, who year after year are
flexing their public school choice muscles, shifting the enrollment landscape
between schools, districts and counties.
"We believe in the power of parents," Quisenberry added.
"Many are willing to make choices and there is mounting evidence they want more
More than a decade has gone by since the passage of
Michigan’s charter school law. Public Act 362 of 1993 paved the way for
universities, community colleges, intermediate school districts and conventional
public school districts to authorize public school academies, or charter
schools. Some 220 charter schools exist in Michigan today, serving an all-time
high of 91,000 students. The enrollment surge is even more impressive in
Detroit, where charters are now serving 22.5 percent more children than last
"That growth would be much, much bigger if more seats were
available," Quisenberry said. "There are waiting lists everywhere you go."
Quisenberry points to a recent survey MAPSA conducted in
cooperation with the Black Alliance for Educational Options. More than 60
percent of parents in the City of Detroit surveyed said there are not enough
education options available to them, and more than half said they have
considered moving in order to find those options.
"This isn’t just charter schools," Quisenberry points out.
"Parents are always looking to meet the needs of kids. It can be charters or
home schooling or parochial or even inter-district choice."
Public Act 300 of 1996 effectively opened much of the state
to limited public school choice for the first time by allowing districts to
enroll students assigned to other districts in the same ISD. Before 1996,
families had to ask permission from the local school board in order for a
student to attend school in a different district. The answer virtually every
time was "no" because the assigned district wanted to keep the state funding
that is tied to the student. The School Aid Act gave some choice to parents, but
districts still are able to limit students who want to attend a different
school, either by not participating in the program, or not accepting very many
students. The law also limits choice, restricting students to school districts
within their own intermediate school districts, or, beginning in 1999, school
districts in contiguous ISDs. More than two-thirds of Michigan school districts
participate in "schools-of-choice" today.
child deserves a quality education and every family deserves a
About 8,000 students used the public school choice
opportunity in the 1996-1997 school year, the first it was available. That
number quadrupled to more than 33,500 within five years, and has grown steadily
Bill Mayes, executive director of the Michigan Association of
School Administrators, said economic factors often play a role in school choice.
"A lot of times it can be because grandma or the babysitter
lives in the next school district over," he said. "Or a plant closes down and
parents have to go elsewhere for new jobs."
Michigan’s urban school districts have all seen significant
enrollment drops in the past 10 years, while some suburban districts have
flourished. Detroit Public Schools, for example, has 10,000 fewer students than
a year ago, and enrollment is down more than 40,000 from a decade ago. Lansing,
Flint and Grand Rapids have all seen public school numbers fall by 4,000 to
5,000 each since 1995. All have closed buildings, including 30 in Detroit.
During the last decade, however, the number of school
children in Michigan has grown by roughly 200,000. Not all have gone to public
charter schools, and non-public schools have actually seen a decrease in
students. However, suburban districts have experienced huge booms in the last
Chippewa Valley, Utica and Warren, all in Macomb County,
enroll 4,000-plus more students today than 10 years ago. Plymouth-Canton and
Northville, both of Wayne County, have added 4,000 and 1,500 students,
respectively, during the same time period. Oakland County’s South Lyon and
Walled Lake districts have 2,500 and 3,500 more students, respectively, than 10
years ago, while Howell, in Livingston County, has 1,600 more students.
Kalamazoo Public Schools has 2,200 fewer students than a decade ago, and while
nearby Portage has not seen a large enrollment increase, the Kalamazoo area’s
charter and independent schools serve about 3,600 students collectively.
In other areas of the state, Ann Arbor has added more than
7,000 students since 1995, while Forest Hills, outside Grand Rapids, has 3,000
more. East Lansing, Holt, Mason, Okemos and Eaton Rapids have all experienced
small gains in contrast to Lansing’s student losses.
Mayes, formerly the superintendent of the Huron County
Intermediate School District, said student loss can apply competitive pressure
to rural schools, too, even though the numbers may not look as big.
"For a school in the Thumb to lose 10 or 12 kids, that’s
$100,000," he said. "For a rural school, that’s huge."
Part of the reasoning behind the changes in school finance
laws during the 1990s, is that when the money follows the student, the school
district the student actually attends receives the per-pupil state funding,
since the district is responsible for educating the student. The school district
the student left no longer has the cost of educating him or her, and therefore
does not receive the money.
School choice has spawned a new concept: public schools that
advertise. Billboards, bumper stickers, mailings and other ideas have been used
by public schools to keep or increase head counts.
"At first, there was some rancor over that," Mayes said.
"People said it didn’t seem very professional, and that only attorneys did that.
For the most part, districts should just concentrate on what they do well and
improve what they don’t do well."
When schools do lose a significant number of students, it can
be used as motivation to make changes.
"It can be difficult on the superintendent, on the board, on
the whole community," Mayes said. "But when it happens, you need to redouble
your efforts, go back to the drawing board and make sure what you’re teaching is
providing the best possible education to the kids that you can."
Quisenberry said parents are looking for certain
characteristics in a school when they decide to move their children. A rigorous
academic environment, quality teachers and safety top the list, he added.
"Every child deserves a quality education and every family
deserves a quality school," Quisenberry said. "The question is, what do you do
with the schools that are struggling? I’d suggest looking at what they lack in
those quality criteria, and fixing it."