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In Mich., Students Shop for Districts; Schools Increase Marketing, Services

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Lansing, Mich.

While his peers were shopping for clothes this summer, 14-year-old Marqus Coleman shopped for a high school.

He consulted friends, newspaper articles, and college-admissions data before leaving his home district of Lansing, Mich., to attend the East Lansing public schools. "They have a good academic and sports program," he said. "If they have both things, why not?"

Mr. Coleman, a black 9th grader from a middle-class home, is a prime example of the new student-customer empowered by a 1996 Michigan statute that encourages public school choice. Last year, that law enabled 7,700 Michigan students to cross district lines for school. It was just a sliver of the state's 1.6 million K-12 enrollment. But the choice option is generating new competition for students such as Marqus Coleman. And schools are responding with new programs and aggressive marketing strategies to lure them.

School choice supporters praise such market forces in the 18 states that allow interdistrict choice. But they worry that the policy is becoming a popular substitute for charter schools, vouchers, and privatization.

"If you can't get charters, you go for open enrollment. It's a compromise," said Jeanne Allen, the president of the Center for Education Reform, a school research group in Washington that promotes various forms of school choice. "Without adding other programs, choice is no big deal."

But Michigan's approach may ultimately take hold in even more states, said Amy Berk Anderson, a vice president with the Denver-based education consulting firm of Augenblick and Myers. Ms. Anderson recently authored a study of research on school choice for the Education Commission of the States, a Denver-based clearinghouse.

If policymakers and school districts do what parents want, she said, "you will see more local school choice. Without a response, there will be more pressure for charters and voucher programs."

'Pent-Up Demand'

Michigan allows students to pick between participating districts in their intermediate school areas, which generally follow county lines and encompass several individual districts. So far, 217 of the state's 557 districts have opted into the voluntary program.

Gov. John Engler, a Republican, likes what he sees. "It's giving students and parents options that only went to wealthy parents who can move or go to private schools," said John Truscott, Mr. Engler's press secretary.

The states with the most active choice programs, however, are those that require that all districts participate.

When Minnesota mandated interdistrict choice in all districts in 1989, enrollment in the program surged from 3,200 students that year to 8,134 two years later. Participation reached 19,000 in the last school year.

Delaware, which has 108,000 K-12 students, tallied 6,107 applications for its new choice program in the 1996-97 school year--88 percent of whom were successfully placed. Most students, however, requested intradistrict transfers.

Last week, the Wisconsin Assembly--the lower house of the legislature--passed a measure that would let parents send their children to any public school in the state.

"There's all this pent-up demand, so when districts must open [enrollment] options, the numbers really jump," said David J. Armor, the co-author of Competition in Education: A Case Study of Interdistrict Choice. ("Mass. Study Supplies Ammunition To Supporters and Critics of Choice," April 16, 1997.)

In general, it's the most capable students who cross district lines. "Those who are exercising choice most are the best students, not necessarily just white students," Mr. Armor said.

Then there is Texas, which in 1995 began allowing students in low-performing schools to attend any public school in the state. With no requirements for districts to participate and little promotion, the program drew just 31 students in the 1995-96 school year.

To boost the program's profile and popularity, a new law requires districts to publicize the option and gives districts $300 above the normal per-pupil grant for each transfer they take.

But as Ms. Allen put it, "I don't know if we can say whether most programs are a success, because there is so little done to promote them."

Selling Schools

One of Michigan's most active choice sites is its gritty, blue-collar capital, Lansing. The largest employer in the city of 130,000 is General Motors Corp., which produces the Pontiac Grand Am and other models here.

During the past school year, about 300 students left the city's public, parochial, and charter schools for new districts. Michigan does not track the race or ethnicity of students who change districts.

Richard J. Halik, the superintendent of the 19,330-student system, said the impact on his district was insignificant. "There was no great sucking sound of students leaving as some predicted," he said. His real problem is the migration of families to the suburbs and the 700 Lansing students in charter schools.

But the fact remains that each student not enrolled in city schools takes $6,000 in state aid somewhere else. And with interdistrict enrollment likely to grow, the competition for students is getting stiffer.

In an unprecedented effort to respond, the Lansing schools created a marketing committee with a $75,000 budget out of an overall budget of about $131 million for this school year. "This isn't our area of expertise," Mr. Halik said. "But we have to get the positive message out."

One of its hot new products is all-day kindergarten, which started in 34 schools this school year at a cost of $1.75 million. "A lot of parents go to charter schools because they offer longer days and longer years," Mr. Halik said. "We asked, 'Why can't we do that?'"

And, in addition to adopting new and tougher academic standards, Lansing is moving 6th graders to self-contained classes within elementary schools to ease parental concerns about sending 6th graders to large middle schools. State data show that most transfer applicants are students in kindergarten and the 6th and 9th grades, transitional grades in the K-12 continuum.

Limited Access

Lansing residents Mitchell and Debra Wells, who are white and call themselves "below middle class," consider themselves fortunate to have gotten their two children into East Lansing High School. "I think it's wonderful," Mr. Wells said of open enrollment. "I can't understand why more parents aren't rushing to this."

But there are choice challenges as well.

Michigan's choice law "is having a real, segregating effect," said Michael Bolous, the executive director of the Middle Cities Education Association, a coalition of 26 urban Michigan districts.

In a meeting last week, superintendents from the group told Mr. Bolous that most students leaving their districts are white and live on the fringes of city districts. Mr. Bolous also charges that wealthy, high-achieving districts that border cities often do not open their doors.

Mr. Bolous, who wants the state to start tracking the race of school choice participants, added, "We're losing students, but not the ones who can benefit most."

Students--particularly those in the inner city--may avoid choice because, as in Michigan, it does not come with free transportation to out-of-district schools.

"We may be close to the max in terms of parents who can transport their children," said Vicki Wozniak, the chief of the 3,900-student East Lansing schools, which took in 157 interdistrict-transfer students last year. East Lansing is a vibrant college town that graduates 94 percent of its students, compared with 68.4 percent in Lansing.

And more Michigan students would participate if the law were changed to let them enroll outside their intermediate school districts, some say. "If you live on the border, you might be a loser," said Bryan Taylor, the executive director of the TEACH Michigan Education Fund, a parent advocacy group in Lansing. "This is still a pretty limited law."

But there may be no way around limits on openings in popular systems. And, some districts oppose too much change, especially if it means adding expensive special services. "There's a fine line between what's too many and what's not enough," Ms. Wozniak said of transfer students. "We don't want so many students that it doesn't look like East Lansing."

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