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Venturing Beyond Campaign Position, Engler Floats Interdistrict-Choice Plan

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Gov. John M. Engler of Michigan last week floated a loosely defined proposal for interdistrict choice that goes beyond the position on school choice he advocated in his campaign last fall.

Mr. Engler, a Republican who had campaigned on a platform favoring choice within school districts, last week told a Detroit Free Press reporter that he favored a cross-district system as well.

The Governor gave few details of his proposal. An aide to Mr. Engler, who stressed that the plan was still in its conceptual stage, said selection of schools across district lines would only be allowed within each of the state's 57 intermediate school districts.

Nevertheless, published reports of the Governor's plans to seek implementation of interdistrict choice as early as the 1992-93 school year drew immediate opposition from some education groups and prompted calls to link any such plan to a reform of the state's school-finance system.

Leaders of the Michigan Education Association said choice would do little to help schools improve, and several urban school officials said their districts should be funded more equitably before being asked to compete with suburban systems.

David Olmstead, finance chairman of the Detroit school board, said he welcomed discussion of interdistrict choice because its proponents would likely find themselves "boxed in" a position of having to also discuss equity in school funding.

The Detroit schools, he said, stand to gain more funding equalization than they would lose from competition with surrounding districts.

"It's like a chess game going on," he added. "I welcome the next move."

As outlined last week by Michael J. Addonizio, the Governor's education adviser, Mr. Engler's tentative proposal calls for choice within school districts and within intermediate districts, which typically are composed of several districts in a county that share services.

Mr. Addonizio said all districts would likely be required to participate in the program. Children within a school district would have first rights to enroll in its schools, he said, and the number of slots available to other students from the intermediate district probably would be limited to a figure such as one per 100 students. Such slots would be assigned through a lottery, the aide said, and the assignments would have to conform to any school-desegregation plans.

The receiving district, Mr. Addonizio said, would probably have the choice of getting a payment for each new pupil equal to its own state per-pupil allotment or that of the original district. It has not been decided how the payment would be calculated for a district not already receiving state aid, he added.

Senator Dan L. DeGrow, a Republican who chairs his chamber's appropriations subcommittee for elementary- and secondary-school aid, said he supports Mr. Engler's plan, which is similar to a proposal Mr. DeGrow expects to put before the legislature in late spring.

It was unclear last week when the Governor would submit his proposal to the legislature.

Mr. DeGrow said the biggest hurdle so far for any such proposal is the issue of how the state can afford to transport children to other districts, especially if the students' families are disadvantaged and without adequate transportation of their own.

Mr. DeGrow predicted that interdistrict choice would "have no impact" in rural areas of Michigan, but "is going to shake things up" in Wayne County, which includes Detroit, and in the surrounding counties of Oakland and Macomb.

Education officials cited examples of disparities in per-pupil spending between districts that would be com8peting under a cross-district plan.

According to the most recent published figures, the Detroit schools spent a total of about $3,900 in local, state, and federal money per pupil, while those in the suburban community of Grosse Pointe, located in the same intermediate district, spent almost $6,300 per pupil, Thomas E. White, director of governmment relations for the Michigan Association of School Boards, noted last week.

Mr. White said his organization supports choice within school districts, but "if it goes beyond a district's boundaries, we would first like to see the playing field leveled in terms of equity in funding."

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