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Published in Print: September 29, 1999, as Facing an Uncertain Future Under Choice

Facing an Uncertain Future Under Choice

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Years of dismal test scores, leadership turnover, and dwindling enrollment have left some in Michigan wondering whether the Inkster school district will--or should--survive.

Between 1995 and 1998, enrollment in the suburban Detroit district dropped by about 19 percent, to 1,759 students, according to the Wayne Regional Educational Service Agency. School officials and researchers say a big chunk of that loss was due to parents who are choosing other options for their children's education--such as charter schools, private schools, or regular public schools in nearby districts.

"The straw that's breaking the camel's back there is parents' not wanting their kids to be in Inkster schools. And the vehicle being used is choice," said Mike Flanagan, the Wayne County superintendent, whose agency oversees Inkster and 33 other districts.

Across Michigan and throughout the country, charter schools and other forms of educational choice are putting pressure on districts to evaluate their practices and improve. Some have responded by adding all-day kindergarten, beefing up after-school programs, and improving parent outreach in an effort to keep students--and the state funding that comes with them.

Most districts are not expected to go under, experts say, though they might well end up with a smaller share of the enrollment pie.

But the Inkster, Mich., schools illustrate an extreme example of what can happen if districts don't, or can't, step up their improvement efforts fast enough to compete. The lesson: Adapt or risk becoming increasingly irrelevant.

"We either do what we need to do to make parents satisfied, or we deserve to lose them," Mr. Flanagan said. "And most districts here have adapted."

Small But Complex Place

Inkster's troubles and decline began long before the Michigan legislature approved a law in 1993 allowing local and intermediate school boards, community colleges, and state universities to sponsor charter schools. The publicly funded but largely independent schools typically receive freedom from certain state rules in exchange for being held accountable for student results.

They began before the first charter school opened in Inkster in 1995 and before cross-district enrollment started the following year, Inkster Mayor Edward Bivens Jr. said.

The majority-black bedroom community of some 30,000 residents, many of whom live below the poverty line, has little industry and a low tax base, leaving school facilities in need of repair. Inkster's test scores are among the lowest in Michigan.

Inkster is not a growing community, so there's no rush of new students moving in to take the place of those leaving for other school options. And the district is fragmented; three other districts' boundaries include pieces of the city of Inkster.

Furthermore, Inkster schools have a history of troubled finances and management. Mr. Flanagan's office and the state education department are working with the district to chip away at a $1.4 million deficit in its $15 million budget.

While these problems have been going on for years, Mayor Bivens and others say the student exodus made possible by the state's public-school-choice policies has only helped speed the district toward a crisis point.

The combination of the deficit and sagging enrollment means that the loss of relatively few students could make a big impact on the district. If enrollment continues to drop this school year, Mr. Flanagan said, the district will be hard-pressed to balance its books because it will be receiving less in state aid.

Last week, districts statewide took their fall enrollment counts; the early, unofficial enrollment for Inkster was 1,490.

Exact figures documenting the effect of school choice on the Inkster district are difficult to come by. Under the state's cross-district- enrollment program last year, 133 students who lived within the Inkster district opted to attend regular public schools in other districts.

But it is unclear how many students who lived in Inkster attended Inkster district schools before opting for charter schools or other districts. Most of Michigan's charter schools were sponsored by public universities, not local districts, and are allowed to draw students statewide, which makes tracking enrollment difficult. And the state doesn't require the schools to collect or report such information, said David Arsen, a Michigan State University professor who is researching school choice in the state.

Nevertheless, researchers and county officials estimate that the five charter schools that operated in or near Inkster last year enrolled as many as 500 students from the district. Together, those schools enrolled roughly 2,000 students.

Meanwhile, this fall, two more charter schools opened in Inkster with room for 1,200 students.

The Rev. George V. Williams, the president of the Inkster school board, said the district has responded to ongoing enrollment drops by making several cuts, including closing a popular magnet school for performing arts. That move left the district with two elementary buildings and a combined middle and high school.

In hindsight, Mr. Williams said, the system didn't move fast enough to improve and lure parents back. "We needed to respond earlier, but the board wasn't ready to step out on faith and take action," he said.

Legislative Options

Inkster's interim superintendent, Terry Ann Boguth--its fifth schools chief in four years--said there is no magic enrollment number the district must maintain. Michigan currently has districts operating with far fewer students than Inkster.

But Inkster is one of just a few districts with a long-term deficit.

Nevertheless, Ms. Boguth added, she thinks the competition ultimately will make the district stronger. "Any time there are more options out there, you get a smaller piece of the pie, and I think that's what's happening here. Our goal now is to make ourselves so competitive that it doesn't matter how many charters there are here."

For now, it's unclear who will decide, and at what point, whether the district will survive.

Options lawmakers might weigh include a state takeover, receivership, or merger with surrounding districts, according to state Sen. Dan L. DeGrow, the Senate majority leader.

"People are wondering whether the Inkster district needs to or should continue to exist," the Republican lawmaker said.

John Truscott, a spokesman for Republican Gov. John Engler, said Michigan officials would continue to work with Inkster, but he added that keeping the district afloat was not the state's main priority. In fact, he hopes Inkster's experience will prod the legislature to allow parents more options by lifting the cap on how many charter schools can be sponsored by universities.

"Our job is not to ensure a district's survival, but to make sure that every child is provided a quality education, wherever that may be," Mr. Truscott said. "Inkster shows if you're not providing quality, you may not exist. "

Market, Not Target

Some Inkster officials see a deliberate plan to run the district out of business, although the district itself sponsored one of the area charter schools in 1997. Three others were granted by Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant, which has approved the lion's share of Michigan's 175 charter schools.

"We've been surrounded, flooded," Mr. Williams, the board president, said.

But James Goenner, the director of CMU's charter school office, said there was never a plan to target the Inkster district.

With expanded public school options in Michigan, "there are clearly going to be some transitional pains," Mr. Goenner said. "But those charter schools are there the reason they're anywhere else: need."

And such schools are also there because Inkster had facilities available, added Wilhelmina Hall, the superintendent for Charter School Administration Services, a for-profit education management group based in Southfield, Mich. Ms. Hall's group runs two charter schools that opened in Inkster this fall, including a performing arts school.

Rosemarie Gonzales, the director of the 200-student Gaudior Academy, said facilities were the only reason her independent school opened in Inkster.

Ms. Gonzales wanted to offer students who couldn't afford tuition for the private school she ran in a suburb some 10 miles from Inkster the same chance to learn in a multiage, cooperative learning environment. By the fall of 1996, she had won permission to convert her private school into a public charter school. But as she shopped for a larger facility, commercial spaces were either too costly to bring up to code, or the districts with extra space refused to rent to her.

Finally, she found a home in the city of Inkster, though she said most of her students come from elsewhere.

"We're not here to serve a residential community where we're at; we're here to serve a community of people who want to learn from a place like us, no matter where they live," Ms. Gonzales said. "I don't think any charter opens to threaten the public school system. ... We're in the same boat as Inksterand we have to compete, too."

Daniel L. Quisenberry, the president of an association rep- resenting Michigan charter schools, said no district had gone under as a result of losing students to charter schools. Charter schools this year are expected to enroll 50,000 Michigan students, or close to 3 percent of the state's 1.7 million K-12 students.

"I don't think people can point to charters as the problem. Parents are choosing charters to get a quality education, and the money is for those kids, not a district," Mr. Quisenberry said.

Cushioning the Blow

Mr. Williams, Inkster's school board president, predicts that parents eventually will be disappointed with the charter schools and return to the district. In the meantime, he said, the district is working to woo students by improving parent outreach.

Darryl Spencer, a longtime Inkster teacher, concedes that books and other supplies are inadequate in the district's schools. "But we're a dedicated group, and we improvise," said Mr. Spencer, the vice president of the local teachers' union. "And yet, people are definitely nervous about what's happening here."

Inkster is clearly not alone in feeling the effects of school choice. Other districts in Michigan and beyond have seen their enrollments shrink as students have left for charters and other options--as have some private schools and charter schools themselves. This year, nearly 1,700 charter schools are expected to enroll 350,000 students in 32 states and the District of Columbia.

A few states have taken steps to lessen the financial blow to districts by providing them at least a portion of the funding that they would have received for those students who opted for charter schools, said Eric Hirsch, a senior analyst at the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures.

"But for people who want to say charters are going to kill the districts financially, that often doesn't happen," said Eric Rofes, a researcher at Humboldt State University in Arcata, Calif., who has studied charter schools' impact.

In a 1998 study of 25 districts in eight states and the District of Columbia, Mr. Rofes found that 14 districts reported no significant signs of having lost funding to charter schools, while five districts said they had significant losses; the other six said they lost some funding. Large urban districts tended to report far less fiscal impact than rural, suburban, and small urban districts.

How much--or whether-- charter schools affect districts financially depends on a state's charter school law, its finance system, other state policies, and a slew of district factors, Mr. Rofes said.

"It's not out of the question that we will see some districts that hit the skids financially and eventually close," he said. "But they'll be the outliers, not the typical experience."

Vol. 19, Issue 5, Pages 1,16-17

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