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School Choice: One Perspective

May 1, 2017

With the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as the Secretary of Education, questions about her educational agenda continue, especially given her background as an advocate for school choice in Michigan. This brief article describes not only Michigan’s current school choice options, but some of the challenges faced by those who would like to choose.

Similar to most state constitutions, Michigan’s constitution describes its responsibility to provide access to a public education for its residents: The legislature shall maintain and support a system of free public elementary and secondary schools as defined by law. Every school district shall provide for the education of its pupils without discrimination as to religion, creed, race, color or national origin (Michigan Constitution, Article VIII, Section 2).

With this constitutional provision as the framework, Michigan offers five types of school choice: 1) Tiebout model where citizens vote with their feet by choosing to move to a different community and attend its local schools (i.e., traditional public schools), 2) inter-district choice where children living in one school district attend school in a neighboring school district, 3) charter schools, 4) private or non-public schools, and 5) home schooling. Of these five, only the first three are publicly funded using a per-pupil foundational allowance based on student enrollment.

Currently, Michigan does not offer tuition vouchers whereby students might attend non-public schools with the state’s voucher offsetting some of the tuition expenses.

State and local school board policy 
From a legal perspective, all children in the state of Michigan maintain the right to attend a school of their choosing. Still, access to charters and interdistrict school choice may be limited by local board of education policies that retain the legal authority to control student enrollment from outside of its residential school district boundaries. While boards may choose to accept or not accept students from outside of its residential boundaries, boards also maintain the authority to accept some students while not accepting others, and enforce this restriction in several ways:

  1. Accept only a specific number of non-residential students. The intent is to ensure that each residential student is guaranteed a seat in a classroom before opening the doors to non-residential students.
  2. Accept students from specific grade levels. This is common in areas where a district allows only elementaryaged, non-residential students to attend its schools.
  3. Accept students from within its intermediate school district (ISD) or allowing students to cross ISD borders. Every Michigan school district is a member of a larger service-providing organization (ISD), commonly known in other states as an educational service agency (ESA). School boards must approve the acceptance of students from non-ISD traditional public school (TPS) districts, with one example being where students living within Detroit Public Schools’ boundaries (Wayne ISD) may or may not be allowed to enroll in suburban Lake Shore Public Schools (Macomb ISD). 

With charter schools, however, students may enroll in any charter within the state, assuming the school has the capacity to accept those students. It should be noted that Michigan charter schools rarely provide transportation services while several other states mandate that traditional public school districts provide transportation to whichever school students choose to attend.

From a legal and policy perspective, Michigan offers broad school choice options, while school boards maintain control over who may enroll in a district’s schools. However, legal authority and practical access to enrollment may be at odds.

Practical implications for parents and children
While Michigan’s policies provide the legal right for school choice, one of the greatest misperceptions about these policies is that all students maintain the practical option to attend any school of their choosing. Based on my research, school choice commonly occurs in the following settings: 1) urban areas where multiple TPS districts and charter schools are readily available, 2) rural areas where a neighboring district’s school building may be near the border between two school districts, and 3) high populations of non-white students. Michigan’s total student population is approximately 34 percent non-white. Michigan’s charters enroll approximately 69 percent non-white students.

Charter schools enroll a much larger proportion of students in school districts identified in cities compared to those in smaller communities and rural school districts, and this is likely due to geographic and population density needed to support a charter school. While Detroit charter schools may strongly influence enrollment and distribution patterns for charter schools, limited access to charter schools or interdistrict school choice options in rural communities and small towns is worth noting.

While Michigan offers multiple school choice options, access to these options is often limited by geographic proximity, school capacity, politics and family resources. School choice advocates frequently ask, Isn’t having a choice a good thing? The question remains, To what extent is school choice an option for all of a state’s students?

Ongoing research
In addition to the basic idea of parents having a practical choice of where to send their children to school, one of the questions researchers continue to investigate is why parents choose to send their children to schools other than the traditional public schools within their residential school district. Preliminary research finds that while some parents perform their due diligence and purposefully choose higher-quality schools based on student outcomes, others appear to rely on word of mouth and marketing materials.

- Tom DeLuca, assistant professor in the Department of Educational Leadership & Policy Studies

*Feature story from the Jayhawk Educator, Spring/Summer 2017 edition. Read full version here.

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