School 'choice' program attracts many Midland County students

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Capital News Service
LANSING — Midland County’s “mobile population” is seeking neighboring child-care and continuing friendships, both benefits that came with Michigan’s widely debated School-of-Choice Program.
Seventeen percent of Midland Public Schools’ students attend a school that is not in their area, according to Carol W. Feider, director of the office of school administration. The program allows parents to find a school that best meets all their needs, not just academically or athletically, Feider added.
“It worked out really well for the schools, parents and students,” she said. “Every school has students because of choice, and it makes sense for families who move a lot.”
Reasons for choice varied among the students by age. For younger children, the need was to be close to after-school baby sitters, while high school students wanted to remain at the same school as their friends.
While many school districts reap the benefits of contented parents and students, the issue of school choice remains a hot topic among education officials. Schools are losing funding because of declining enrollment even though the program’s goal was to provide an economic incentive to attract more students.
A new proposal, the Declining Enrollment Assistance Program, would allow failing districts to apply for state funding because of lost revenue, said Jeff Cobb, legislative assistant to Rep. Gerald Van Woerkem, R-Norton Shores.
“The district must submit reasons why they need the money,” Cobb said. “It is not enough that they lose 50 students one year and then plateau.”
Many factors are involved in the application process, Cobb said. These include the effect of new charter schools and the number of people who move away from the community.
The plan provides money to assist with some of the more expensive details that a district struggles with, such as transportation and school uniforms, Cobb said.
Although the legislation is still being drafted, complaints from schools with declining enrollments continue to rage because of the state’s school-of-choice program.
The program, adopted during the 1996-97 school year, allows students to move freely among the schools within a local district, as well between the smaller ones in an intermediate school district.
The program expanded in 2001 with a provision creating the opportunity for students to attend a school in an ISD that borders their own.
Margaret Trimer-Hartley, director of communications of the Michigan Education Association, contends that widespread competition among schools is becoming a key issue, but the need for money is not based solely on declining enrollment due to school choice.
“There are a myriad of reasons why a school experiences declining enrollment,” Trimer-Hartley said. “There is some impact from school choice, but the two are not working in tandem.”
According to the Michigan Department of Education, 33,572 students are participating in the school-of-choice program, entitling them to attend a public school outside their district.
A significant obstacle public schools must overcome is the rising number of charter schools that lure students away from public schools.
In the Warren Woods School District, however, the school choice program has given parents the right to plan their child’s education around circumstances that would otherwise cause a problem.
Robert Livernois, director of curriculum and pupil services, says that the program has had a positive impact in the lives of both parents and students.
“It depends on the parents’ perception of the district,” Livernois said. “The program opened up an arena of debate about choice, but our district is definitely benefiting.”
The only problem that Livernois foresees is preparing for increased enrollment when the drought of students comes to an end for some districts.
“We want to be prepared,” Livernois said. “But it’s like working in a pizzeria. You don’t know how many pizzas to make until the customers come in.”
Increased competition among schools has led the Dearborn Public Schools system to create specialized programs that will benefit both students and parents. The district’s public school enrollment grew from 14,229 in 1994 to an estimated 17,000 by fall of 2000.
Dearborn Superintendent Jeremy Hughes said the reason was ” to diversify, not so much to put charter schools out of business but to have some decent competition.”
© 2002, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism

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