School Choice & Charters

Mixed Results Seen For Public School Choice in Mich.

By Lynn Schnaiberg — October 27, 1999 4 min read

Michigan’s public-school-choice policies are opening up new opportunities for many state students, but could harm some of their classmates who don’t take advantage of them, a study concludes.

For More Information

Free copies of “School Choice Policies in Michigan: The Rules Matter” are available by calling (517) 353-8950.

Scheduled to be released this week, the report from a team of Michigan State University researchers is being billed as the first to examine the combined impacts of charter schools and a state policy that enables students to attend schools outside their home districts.

Though the authors say it is too early to gauge the full effects of school choice in Michigan, they call for its further expansion in the name of promoting equity and parental empowerment.

But, they say, such expansion should be coupled with a second look at the rules governing the choice programs to maximize their benefits.

“It’s necessary to refine the legislative and administrative rules so that choice works to improve education for all children,” said David Arsen, an associate professor of political economy at MSU and an author of the report. “Current choice policies are creating both winners and losers among children.”

Those policies, the authors say, have benefited students, especially those from poor families, by giving them educational opportunities that otherwise wouldn’t be available to them. The policies also have resulted in schools’ becoming more responsive to parent preferences.

But in some cases, the report concludes, students who are not taking advantage of the new opportunities are being left behind in declining districts that may be ill- equipped to compete in the education marketplace.

“Choice may impose costs on students who don’t choose,” said co-author David N. Plank, an education professor.

Rules Are ‘Key’

The researchers say the state’s charter school and interdistrict-choice policies, adopted in 1993 and 1996, have had a limited impact on enrollment in most districts, but a large impact in a “small but vital few.” Some districts that were losing students before the introduction of choice policies have seen further departures since they were adopted. (“Researchers Say Texas Voucher Program Doesn’t ‘Cream’ Students,” Sept. 29, 1999.)

Such departures may accelerate the decline in school quality for students who remain in those districts, the authors say.

The authors also found that the school choice policies appear to support trends toward the “social sorting” of students. They note that about half of Michigan’s districts participate in the interdistrict-choice program, but that many affluent or growing districts do not. And many charter schools target “niche markets” of parents looking for schools featuring specific ethnic or values orientations, the authors say, such as an Afrocentric curriculum or strong character education program.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that some charter schools, which are publicly funded but largely independent from school districts, increasingly are taking steps to shape their student populations, with some requiring parents to fill out application forms or participate in interviews before enrolling, the study found.

The state could defuse the issue by creating a more uniform process for enrollment and expulsions in charter schools to limit their opportunity to enroll or exclude students on the basis of cost or other characteristics, the authors recommend.

“The rules around choice are key,” said Gary Sykes, a co- author and education professor at MSU.

Managing the Market

The report’s recommendations for policymakers also include: making more information on all public schools available to parents and educators to help in making choices; assigning explicit responsibility for turning around failing schools and for educating students in the event a district fails; granting charter schools more financial support to put them on a more equal footing with district resources; and clarifying responsibility for monitoring charter schools.

“The market by itself cannot solve our educational problems,” Mr. Arsen said, adding that the state has a role in shaping the market.

Among other findings in the study:

  • Probably because of cost considerations, many charter schools enroll only elementary students and provide fewer and less expensive special education services than neighboring districts;
  • To date, charter school innovations are happening in the areas of school governance and management more than in teaching and learning;
  • Virtually no mechanism exists to let charter schools and school districts learn from each other; and
  • Most of Michigan’s charter schools contract for services with for-profit education management organizations.

The report draws on research conducted over the past three years, including analysis of enrollment trends, budget data, and socioeconomic characteristics on charter schools and school districts. Researchers interviewed policymakers and school officials and visited several dozen charter schools, according to the report.

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