Government Encouragement

The Detroit public school district announced last week that they would no longer grant waivers to students allowing them to attend certain public schools outside of Detroit. Ken Coleman, spokesman for Detroit Public Schools, says the decision was made to "encourage parents" to stay in the district.

This is like saying the Berlin Wall was built to "encourage" people to stay in East Germany. And as if it weren't enough to euphemistically disguise such a coercive practice, Coleman went on to rationalize the district's decision, telling the Detroit Free Press, "The district isn't signing waivers because officials believe city schools are competitive."

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Stuff and nonsense.

What Detroit school "officials believe" about schools is irrelevant — competitiveness is not a state of mind. If the city's schools were competitive, they wouldn't be losing tens of thousands of students, and they wouldn't need to adopt policies that force parents to return. Such coercive "competitiveness" would be like Kmart running a mandatory blue-light special: Our deal on this item is so much better than our competitor's that shoppers aren't allowed to leave the store until they buy it.

Under Michigan's public school choice program, parents may send their child to school in a neighboring district without a waiver, but only if the neighboring district chooses to participate in the program. Some districts don't participate because they receive higher per-pupil monies from state government than other districts do. Participating in the program would mean that such districts would have to accept smaller state government grants for students who came from districts with lower grant levels.

A waiver becomes necessary when parents wish to send their children to a school in a district that doesn't participate in the public school choice program. Because some suburban districts receive a higher foundation grant than the Detroit school district, these suburban districts often accept waiver students if the parent agrees to pay the difference.

One such waiver student is Jasmine Jackson, a Detroit seventh grader, who attends an East Hills Middle School. Her mother Jacqueline pays about $2,800 per year to the Bloomfield Hills School District because it receives a higher per-pupil state grant than Detroit.

Why go to all that extra expense and trouble to arrange car pool rides for Jasmine to attend school in Bloomfield Hills?

Although Jacqueline refers to herself as a product of Detroit Public Schools, she says that she is dissatisfied with the education she received, and that she wants better for her daughter. "What the Detroit Board should understand," says Jacqueline, "is that we pay additional money which means we are very passionate about where our child is attending. It means we've actively gone out and looked at schools and made choices."

As to the Board's recent decision not to issue future waivers, Jacqueline says it doesn't matter: "Bottom line, they (DPS) will not get her even if we have to move out of Detroit."

As to how many students like Jasmine will be affected, the DPS is unsure (as it is with its enrollment headcounts, financial projections and other data about its own operations). The Detroit Free Press reported that the district doesn't know how many of "the estimated 6,000 Detroit students attending suburban public schools will be affected."

But as the Detroit Free Press points out, the amount of revenue generated by such a decision will likely be minimal because most nonresident students attend schools that don't require a waiver.

That the financial impact will be so minimal should be reason enough for parents to demand that Detroit Public Schools reverse this decision immediately. But it is not primarily a financial question. Rather, it is that government schools have no moral right to compel parents — the people who pay teacher salaries — to utilize the schools’ services. It might also be a good time for the Legislature to amend Michigan's schools-of-choice laws so that districts like Detroit no longer have the power to withhold a waiver from a family that wants one.

While quick action to fix this problem is needed on the part of Detroit Public Schools and the Legislature, some families won't be waiting around. Lifelong Detroit resident Charles Williams, whose 6th grade daughter goes to school outside the district on a waiver, says, "There will be a 'for sale' sign going up on my property in two days." Like many other Detroiters, he's moving to the suburbs for better schools.

Restrictive government policies that prevent parents from sending their children to schools they choose may only exist in the form of paper and ink, but they serve the same purpose as concertina wire and guards. They make people servants of government rather than government a servant of the people.

With government schools "encouraging" parents like that, who needs coercion?


Brian L. Carpenter is director of leadership development for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.