The following speech was delivered at the Howard University School of Law April 2, 2001, as part of its symposium, "The Education Divide: Gauging the Impact of Legal Challenges to School Vouchers and Parental Choice on America's Children."

Good morning, and thank you for the opportunity to speak about the impact of limited school choice in Michigan. My remarks are based upon the findings in the August 2000 report, "The Impact of Limited School Choice on Public School Districts," by Dr. Matthew Ladner and myself.

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You should understand that the Mackinac Center is pro-school choice. However, we do not believe choice to be a panacea for all of public education's woes. That being said, we do believe that real reforms in education will not occur until we get rid of the assignment system—the one whereby children are assigned to particular schools based on where they live. Choice and competition are necessary pre-conditions for significant improvements in our public education system.

Let me begin by providing some context to what I will be speaking about. Michigan has over 1.6 million students in public schools. Approximately 58,000 of these students are in 183 charter schools and another 26,000 students are using the public schools-of-choice program.

The purpose of our research effort was to determine whether or not increased choice and competition, albeit very limited, is benefiting children in Michigan. We focused on public school districts in Michigan's most populous county, Wayne County, because of its extensive experience with charter schools and public "schools-of-choice." Wayne is home to 34 public school districts, 670 schools, and 60 charter schools.

Our report highlights four public school districts and their responses to increased competition. The districts were chosen because we believed they would be fairly representative of what is occurring across the state of Michigan.

The first district we analyzed is the Dearborn City School District, a large urban district bordering the west side of Detroit. Dearborn has nearly 16,000 students and serves students from diverse cultures and religions.

Superintendent Jeremy Hughes says his district began preparing for competition "when the ink was barely dry on the charter school legislation." Hughes says he knew exactly what was going to happen: People with unique ideas would be starting charter schools. Dearborn took the initiative and developed its own charter-like program. Of the 30 schools in the district, 18 schools now have "themes" such as character education, creative arts, engineering technology, extended school year, multi-age classes, gifted and talented, and others. Students are able to choose schools, within the traditional public school district, that provide a degree of choices for families. They can choose to send their children to a particular "theme school," or they can likewise avoid one if they find it undesirable.

Dr. Hughes says, "We welcome competition. The reforms we've enacted would not have happened, at least not as fast, without competition." Despite increased competition from neighboring charter schools, the Dearborn schools have experienced an increase in student population. This past January, Hughes won the prestigious Winner's Circle Award from the Michigan Association of School Administrators for his innovation in establishing the theme schools.

Another example of what may be happening across the state can be found in Flat Rock Community Schools. Flat Rock is a small district of fewer than 2,000 students that lies south of Detroit. It was expected that the opening of Summit Academy, a large charter school, in the district would negatively impact the district. This was not the case. In fact, the Summit Academy helped relieve overcrowding in the Flat Rock district. The charter school also saved taxpayers millions of dollars in construction costs for additional facilities.The greater benefit, however, is that the children have an additional choice of schools that they did not previously enjoy.

Highland Park Public Schools is a small district that is completely surrounded by the Detroit Public Schools district. This district lately has become the district of choice for many Detroit students. Highland Park recognized the need for a school that serves students who either dropped out of school or were expelled. The Career Academy was created to attract students from neighboring districts and provide them with career assistance that they were not getting elsewhere. The public schools of choice program enabled Highland to create this program. Highland Park has also made a number of other changes to attract additional students from other districts. All-day kindergarten, smaller class sizes, and after-school tutoring are some of the features that have attracted more than 1,300 students from Detroit this year alone.

The fourth, and probably most controversial, district we studied is Inkster Public Schools. This small district of under 1,800 students lies to the west of Detroit. Inkster has seen a mass exodus of students to both charter schools and neighboring public school districts since 1995. In 1999, the district was in such dire financial shape that it cancelled participation in spring sports and left its employees without health insurance for a time because the district failed to pay its premiums. Inkster's woes attracted national attention when the Detroit Free Press declared the district a "victim of choice." Reports across the nation soon placed the blame for a financial crisis at the feet of charter schools and public "schools-of-choice."

But our research found that Inkster Public Schools had been in a downward spiral long before the introduction of choice. For 26 years, Inkster experienced an enrollment decline as many families were leaving the area. Parents were exercising "traditional school choice," whereby they relocated their residences to preferred communities or sent their children to private schools. Other factors also contributed to the decline of Inkster: low student test scores, political instability on the school board, financial mismanagement, and racial tensions within the community.

For the 2000-2001 school year, the threat of a state takeover prompted Inkster to contract with private, for-profit Edison Schools to manage the entire four-school district. Edison has made improvements, but the district is not out of the woods just yet: the state may yet step in. Conflicts between the board and Edison continue to threaten the contract.

The problems in Inkster are very real. But has increased choice and competition exacerbated the academic and financial woes of this small inner-city district?

We found that the introduction of choice and competition in the district merely served to expose the degree to which parents were unhappy with their schools. Charter schools and public "schools-of-choice" gave Inkster parents and students alternatives to schools they deemed failing.

Regardless of what happens in Inkster, one outcome is certain: Academic and financial fraud will no longer continue. Either Inkster will better serve the needs of its children or the children will have access to schools that will.

In conclusion, we believe that charter schools and public schools of choice are providing Michigan children with greater educational options, as well as the ability to escape schools that are not serving their needs. It is also clear that competition is forcing school districts to respond to community and parental demands.

The result is that the children of Michigan are benefiting.

Thank you.