By Katie Dudlets
The Meridian Times Staff Reporter
In Michigan, the number of students in schools of choice increased from 66,560 in 2005-06 to 115,209 in 2012-13, an upsurge of 73 percent. Schools of choice enrollment also made up a larger percentage of the state’s overall student population, rising from 3.7 percent of 1.8 million students in 2005-06, to 7.1 percent of 1.6 million students in 2012-13.
Administrators in Meridian Township are seeing a similar trend.
“We do have many students that are interested and go ahead and make applications for schools of choice for Haslett [High School], and not only Haslett, but for Haslett Public Schools,” said Haslett High School Principal Bart Wegenke. “I think we’re probably about 18 to 20 percent schools of choice [students] for this district.”
According to Joshua Cowen, an associate professor in the Department of Educational Administration at Michigan State University, this increase in the program’s popularity is not only a trend in Michigan, but in the nation as well.
Sarah Reckhow, an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at MSU, said the schools of choice program basically gives families more of a choice when deciding where their children will attend school.
“In the state of Michigan, when you’re going to enroll your child in a public school, you’re not limited to the school district where you live,” said Reckhow. “In many places, surrounding school districts accept children who are not residents of that district. The parent can actually enroll the child without paying any additional fee.”
In addition, according to the Michigan Department of Education, “choice options may be available for a student that is a victim of criminal sexual assault or other serious assault and a student who has been suspended or expelled to attend a nonresident alternative education program.”
Parents with school-age children can choose to enroll their students in schools out of their home district for a multitude of other reasons.
“These [reasons] may include a belief that one district offers better opportunities than another, or is a better fit for a particular student,” said guidance counselor Hedlun Walton from Okemos High School. “Students may have had some social issues and are seeking a fresh start.
“Sometimes it may be that a student had been attending a specific district but then, due to circumstances, may have had to move to a neighboring district but wants to be able to continue attendance at their original district. Sometimes the parents may work in a different town and it is more convenient for students to attend school in that same town.”
Most often, the reason for a parent to utilize the schools of choice program is for better perceived academic opportunities in a neighboring district. Kathy Knapp, who has children in the Okemos School District through schools of choice, said her focus was on her kids’ education and stability.
“Okemos offered a Montessori program and I was very interested in having my children attend that particular school,” said Knapp. “Additionally, I hadn’t planned on staying in a home in a different school district and having my children change districts once they were settled in a school didn’t appeal to me. Starting them in Okemos made sense.
“The fact that we still live out of district is a matter of circumstance and I am thankful both of my children were able to be a part of Okemos Public Montessori.”
Special programs like the Montessori school also have a significant impact on whether or not a family will choose to use schools of choice.
“Some districts have specific programs like the Chinese immersion program at Post Oak, the International Baccalaureate program at Eastern High School, or any of the other magnet programs in Lansing that likely attract students from outside the district as well,” said Walton. “In Okemos we have a public Montessori program, which is uncommon.”
Kate McCullough, a mother with two college students who previously used schools of choice, said that she sent her children to a school out of their home district simply because of equity.
“Our district did not have the funds that our neighboring district had to purchase technology, fund the arts department and fund sports, in particular, swimming and water polo,” said McCullough.
Kate McCullough’s daughter, Em McCullough, now a sophomore at MSU, said going to a school out of her home district made a positive impact on her academic career.
“I 100 percent [believe using schools of choice was worth it],” said Em McCullough. “I was able to take AP classes and enroll in things I otherwise wouldn’t have been able to, like poetry and zoology. I also believe that my new high school helped better prepare me to get into college and to be successful.”
Both Kate McCullough and Knapp believe their children benefitted heavily from schools of choice options.
“My children have received an excellent education and have been presented with incredible opportunities,” said Knapp. “The Montessori program gave them opportunities to learn in their own ways while covering required curriculum. We found like-minded families in the program and both children have made lifelong friends.”
Of course, not every family will utilize the program.
“Now if you think about it, we all make school choices for our kids, but most of us make those choices based on where we buy a house,” said Cowen. “Most of us just buy the house by where we want the kids to go to school.”
Mother and Principal Wendy Peterson said that she passed on schools of choice because of her job and her pride in her workplace.
“[I don’t send my children out of district] because I am the principal of our school, and I think our school’s the best, so my children go there,” said Peterson.
There are also some cons for families who want their children to attend an out-of-district school.
Em McCullough said having to start over in a new school was the biggest con to school of choice in her perspective, while another MSU student who was previously a schools of choice student, Rachel DeShambo, said that people need to be aware that you lose out of the new district’s transportation.
“One of the only cons was that I was living in a different city, and so I didn’t have access to the school district’s transportation,” said DeShambo.
As Wegenke notes, the issue of transportation can be a deterrent for families when it comes to schools of choice.
“You’ve got to remember that with schools of choice, the district that is accepting them doesn’t have to provide transportation,” said Wegenke. “So there has to be a mobility piece to that as well. In urban districts, if you’re not able to be mobile, that means probably driving your son or daughter to the school that you want them to go to, then you’re not going to do that.”
For some though, getting their students to a better school is worth the cost of transportation and other associated costs.
“I feel that because we travel from out of district there are times when I feel my children are not as connected to their peers as they might be if we lived within walking or biking distance of friends,” said Knapp. “Perhaps being a little disconnected from the school community is a bit of a con. And the drive, yes the drive is a con. But the benefits far outweigh the cost of gas.”
While individual students and families may be benefitting from the program, many schools and districts are suffering heavily from students leaving their district.
“[Schools of choice] creates a fair amount of financial instability at the district level for districts that have lots of ebb and flow of students,” said Cowen. “So it makes budgeting difficult. There is some concern that it is the higher achieving, non-minority kids leaving the toughest districts or the most disadvantaged districts. You wouldn’t want to lose your best kids to schools of choice.”
Reckhow said Michigan’s schooling system is at the root of the problem when it comes to disadvantaged districts and the domino effect in which they continuously lose students to neighboring districts as per pupil funding continues to drop.
“We have this hyper-localized system that’s also competitive and so the school districts have to market themselves and they’re all competing over these scarce state resources,” said Reckhow. “I come from North Carolina. The school districts are county level there, so it would be like Ingham County having a school district for the whole county. To me, that makes much more sense.”
Reckhow said Michigan’s smaller, more numerous school districts duplicate the same administrative functions and services instead of trying to create some economies of scale, which she believes would help the individual students and the education system overall.
This competition over the state’s funding is also a big contributor to why some schools accept schools of choice students in the first place.
“Money follows students in Michigan,” said Reckhow. “In other states, local property tax revenue is the larger share of school funding, but in Michigan, most of the per pupil funding comes from the state. And so a district that’s losing population is going to want to enroll schools of choice students to make up for that loss of students.”
However, this idea works both ways.
“On the flip side, you have school districts that I think are often in wealthier areas that maybe have less of a funding problem and maybe a more stable population, and may see admitting schools of choice students as possibly pulling down the overall achievement level of their district,” said Reckhow.
Wegenke said the fact that state funding is based on the number of students in a school district is what really causes certain districts the most harm, and is an unfavorable and unintended consequence of the schools of choice program.
“Look at Detroit for example. In its prime, yeah it was a large district, but it was robust, it was being successful,” said Wegenke. “What happened is that in Detroit, people didn’t feel that they had as many options as maybe a district that was connected to them. And a lot of times that was a suburban district. What happens then is a ripple effect.
“Typically, what will happen with schools of choice, if somebody chooses from say Lansing, to come to Haslett, we accept them as schools of choice. There’s a good opportunity that they may come and buy a home here or rent a home in Haslett. And that’s what really happened to Detroit, and you see that in Lansing now.
“Lansing, back in the 80s and early 90s was a school district of about 24,000 to 30,000 kids. Now it’s down to 11,000 or 12,000.”
Cowen said that there are winners and losers to the schools of choice program.
“Some districts really do get a lot of students and they benefit financially from it,” said Cowen. “And some districts lose students, and they lose money because of it.”
For the more popular districts like Okemos and Haslett, the program seems to have a positive influence.
“We find that our schools of choice students and parents really find our high school not only to be a top performing high school, but a high school where they feel comfortable and they find success,” said Wegenke. “And that’s really what’s intended with schools of choice.”
“From a financial standpoint, schools of choice students can be a benefit if they fill empty desks in your classrooms, but if you enroll enough schools of choice students that you have to hire more staff, it can end up being a cost,” said Walton. “There is certainly the argument that competition among schools will motivate them to seek continual improvement, but for us at least, the number of schools of choice enrollment is low enough that I don’t believe it is a factor.”
As Peterson points out, there is a tense debate surrounding the benefit of parental choice versus the financial loss for a school.
“Where you stand depends on where you sit,” said Cowen of the overall issue. “If you think that more choices are inherently better, you want to give parents as much flexibility to do whatever they want with their kids’ education, then I think that’s doing that. But if you worry about public schools losing certain kids, if you worry that the system’s going to disadvantage some districts over others in particular, then you think it might be more negative.”
Cowen also said policy makers, legislators and parents need to recognize that just because you are utilizing the program does not mean the district or school you are going to is any better than the one in your neighborhood.
“Different districts can decide how many kids come in each year and where those kids are going, which school,” said Cowen. “So it’s possible that you’re going to a district that overall is ‘better’ in academics than you’re leaving, but it could be to the school that’s the lowest performing in that district. You may not be doing any better.”
Because of this, Em McCullough’s father, Kip McCullough, suggest that parents research the districts to ensure they make an informed decision.
“When we moved our kids, we looked into private schools and other schools within our area,” said Kip McCullough. “Plan visits and meet with the staff at the schools. Discuss their academics as different schools are at different levels and make sure your kids are not taking a step backwards.”