Schools-of-choice program hits urban schools the most

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Capital News Service
LANSING – The schools-of-choice option has hurt the enrollments for urban school districts such as Detroit and Lansing, researchers say.
Since 1996, when the state implemented its schools-of-choice policy, poorer students have migrated from large urban districts to nearby suburban ones with higher family incomes and a lower concentration of minorities, according to the Michigan State University Education Policy Center.
“Schools-of-choice has created a situation where school districts have to advertise more and compete for students,” said Doug Pratt, communications director for the Michigan Education Association (MEA). “It creates situations where there are winners and losers, and we don’t want to do that with Michigan students.”
MEA is the state’s largest union of school personnel.
Pratt said, “Rather than focus on creating competition through schools-of-choice, we need to focus on fixing our school funding system for all students, so that everyone has the opportunity to get a great education regardless of district boundaries.”
The schools-of-choice policy allows students to attend public school outside their district. Districts receive state aid for schools-of-choice students.
Students who choose to attend school in another district must provide their own transportation to and from school.
“Schools-of-choice provides an advantage for parents and their children to choose where they will receive the best education,” Sharif Shakrani, co-director of the center, said.
In 2002, Detroit had 35,276 students who lived in the city but attended public schools elsewhere. In 2009, that number grew to 63,926, an 81 percent increase, according to the center.
Shakrani said that declining enrollment caused by the program is one factor that is leading Detroit to consolidate schools.
“Due to schools-of-choice and other competition within education, large districts such as Detroit have to consolidate schools due to declining enrollment,” Shakrani said. “When buildings are closed, the entire community is affected.”
When that happens, students are transferred elsewhere within the district and the building is left empty, he said.
John Helmholdt, director of communications for Grand Rapids Public Schools, said that a key flaw of the program is that less fortunate students must survive in struggling districts.
“Students are being left behind because they either don’t have the economic or transportation means to utilize schools-of-choice or they don’t have the parental engagement that is affording some students the opportunity to take advantage of schools-of-choice,” said Helmholdt.
“Grand Rapids has a large number of low-income families, single-parent homes and a lot of other challenges that impede some students’ ability to utilize schools-of-choice,” he said.
The Lansing School District has also experienced declining enrollment due to schools-of-choice, said Steve Serkaian, the district’s executive director communications and governmental relations.
Between 1998 and 2005, the district attracted 287 school-of-choice students from neighboring districts but lost 1,206 to other districts.
That decline in enrollment cost the district about $6.3 million per year in state aid, roughly 3.5 percent of its annual budget, according to the center.
During that same period, East Lansing Public Schools lost 74 students to schools-of-choice while gaining 457, bringing the district about $3.6 million more per year in state funds.
“Our enrollment has been impacted by schools-of-choice and we’re having to make difficult decisions as a district,” Serkaian said.
For example, last year the district closed Moores Park and Grand River elementary schools and moved about 460 students into other schools.
“There just weren’t enough students to make it efficient to operate those schools anymore,” Serkaian said.
Since 2000, Grand Rapids has lost more than 7,000 students to schools-of-choice and other competitors – charters and private schools – Helmholdt said.
Helmholdt said the district’s low-performing schools were a key factor in their declining enrollment because schools-of-choice offered students the opportunity to attend neighboring districts which offered a better curriculum.
“For a long time our schools were struggling academically and only 26 of our 55 schools were meeting federal academic standards five years ago,” Helmholdt said. “In the last four years we’ve begun to alter the way we provide education, and today 45 of our 55 schools are meeting federal academic standards.”
Helmholdt said the district is closing the gap between the students it loses and receives through schools-of-choice, largely due to the changes it’s made.
For example, the district is turning several schools into ‘centers of innovation’ that operate similarly to charter schools to offer a variety of educational opportunities.
“Students within the district are more likely to stay when we offer them the same opportunities they could receive outside the district,” Helmholdt said.
© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.
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