Families & the Community

Public School Choice Pushed in Michigan

By Sean Cavanagh — September 20, 2011 6 min read
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At a time when many states are adopting controversial measures to launch or expand private school vouchers, Republicans in Michigan are taking a different direction, moving ahead with a plan that would greatly expand the menu of public school choices for students and parents.

GOP lawmakers, who control both state legislative chambers, have introduced a series of proposals that would give students more freedom to attend schools outside their districts, increase options for taking college classes while in high school, and encourage the growth of charter schools and online education offerings.

Many of those proposals mirror the stated priorities of first-term Gov. Rick Synder, a Republican, who earlier this year called for establishing “open access to a quality education without boundaries.” He described the idea as an “any time, any place, any way, any pace” model.

“Almost every bill in the package is designed to increase parental choice and student choice,” said state Sen. Phil Pavlov, a Republican who chairs his chamber’s education committee and who is one of the sponsors of the multibill package. Increasing those options for families, he argued, will drive improvement in the state’s schools.

Sen. Phil Pavlov, a Republican, chairs the Michigan state Senate's education panel and is a sponsor of legislation on public school choice.

Public-school-choice models such as Michigan’s—sometimes called “open enrollment” systems—are not new, though they have periodically gained or lost popularity among policymakers interested in an array of choice options, including vouchers. More than one-third of states, by one estimate, require districts to accept students from other school systems, though those policies vary greatly.

Portions of the Michigan agenda are already drawing opposition, however. One such proposal is a bill sponsored by Mr. Pavlov that would mandate that districts accept students from outside their boundaries if those school systems have the space for them.

Currently, Michigan does not mandate that school districts accept out-of-district students, though they can do so voluntarily. More than 80 percent of the state’s traditional districts participate in the existing school choice program voluntarily, state records show.

Mr. Pavlov said he does not foresee massive movement between schools if his bill becomes law, partly because of families’ limited transportation options. But he nonetheless believes the change is necessary to give more students the additional options.

Skeptical of Plan

One of the districts where local officials have voiced concern about the measure is the Grosse Pointe school system, a relatively affluent 8,500-student system located outside of Detroit.

The president of the school board, John Steininger, says that if parents want their children to attend Grosse Pointe schools, they should move within the district’s boundaries, where they can help others improve and maintain high-quality schools. Mr. Steininger says his parents made that commitment in the 1950s, when they came to the area, drawn partly by its good schools.

Picking and Choosing

Michigan lawmakers are considering an unusually broad package of education measures this year, many of them focused on increasing public school options for families.

Dual Enrollment
Ease restrictions on public school students’ taking college courses; allow nonpublic students to take part in dual-enrollment with state aid.

Conversion
Allow a majority of parents or teachers at a school to petition to convert the school to a charter, akin to the “parent trigger” concept in other states.

Charter and Online Education
Remove caps on the number and location of various kinds of charters; encourage the development of “cyber” schools.

Private Services
Allows school districts to contract for instructional services, rather than just noninstructional services.

Open Enrollment
Require districts to participate in school choice and admit students if space is available.

Sources: Michigan Legislature; Education Week

“It was worth moving here, it was worth the sacrifice,” said Mr. Steininger. The proposed law is “ill-conceived,” he said, and would “take local control away, when local control has been so effective.”

The Michigan Association of School Boards also has concerns about the proposal, said Kathy Hayes, the executive director of the organization. Some districts would be helped financially by taking new students, and securing new per-student state aid, Ms. Hayes said. But she worries that districts that lose students would suffer.

“It seems to us that the district is in the best position to determine whether [accepting students] is going to work or not,” Ms. Hayes said.

But Michael Van Beek, the director of education policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a think tank in Midland, Mich., that supports expanded public and private school choice, said the measure would give critical new opportunities to families dissatisfied with their schools.

“I view the ultimate form of local control being parental control,” Mr. Van Beek said. As it now stands, too many parents are forced to “submit to the views of the local school board.”

The proposed measure, as written, would give districts the right to determine whether they have the capacity to accept new students. That provision worried Mr. Van Beek, who said it could lead to districts’ “gaming the system to make it look like they’re full.”

The Michigan proposals contrast with GOP-backed measures adopted in other states this year that created or expanded private school choice, by providing vouchers to families or tax credits to individuals or organizations supporting students’ private school costs. Voucher programs have faced legal challenges in some states where state constitutions restrict the use of public money for religious institutions, including schools. Michigan’s constitution is especially restrictive in that regard, noted Mr. Van Beek and others, which probably points lawmakers in the direction of pursuing public school choice.

Sen. Pavlov agreed that the state constitution—and previous public reaction to voucher proposals in Michigan—did not create a favorable condition for that type of private-choice policy. Vouchers are “not what we’re talking about with our package,” the lawmaker said in an e-mail.

National Landscape

Measures to expand public school choice across districts have existed in one form or another for decades, said Kathy Christie, the chief of staff at the Education Commission of the States, a research organization in Denver. State interest in open enrollment seemed especially strong in the 1990s, she said, though its luster faded somewhat after that, as policymakers focused on promoting charter school growth as a way of creating more options for students.

Many state policies that allow students to attend schools or districts outside their assigned boundaries come with restrictions, Ms. Christie noted, such as stipulations that accepting schools have the overall capacity, or enough space within programs or grade levels to take new students. By the ECS’ count, 17 states have policies that mandate that districts accept students from other school systems, though restrictions vary.

Open-enrollment policies are attractive to those who see school choice as a civil rights issue, said Michael J. Petrilli, the executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington think tank that supports expanded public and private school choice. There’s a “pretty compelling equity argument,” he said. “If schools are public, they should be public.”

But if the goal is to improve schools by sparking competition, open-enrollment isn’t as appealing, he said, in that they limit movement from “one public monopoly to another.”

“It’s not all that interesting for people who are trying to create a new, market dynamic in education,” Mr. Petrilli said.

Michigan lawmakers’ interest in expanding options for students and families and changing how education is delivered go beyond the cross-district choice policy.

In addition to encouraging charter and “cyber” school growth, one piece of the legislative package would allow districts to contract with private providers for instructional services. Another would ease requirements to allow more dual enrollment, in which high school students take postsecondary courses; that bill also would allow students in nonpublic schools to participate, with the help of state aid.

The Michigan Education Association opposes the legislative package, said Doug Pratt, its director of public affairs, and it sees the option of allowing private school students to receive state aid for dual-enrollment as “a back-door voucher,” he said.

That aim requires doing away with policies that limit students’ options, he said, on the basis of “imaginary lines” and “specific zip codes.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 21, 2011 edition of Education Week as Public School Choice Pushed in Michigan

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