Culture of Class
11:45 am
Thu November 17, 2011

Neighborhood schools vs. "choice" debate about money, culture, and local control

American public education has a strong tradition of neighborhood schools within locally-controlled school districts. But that’s changed in recent years.

The vast majority of Michigan school districts participate to some degree in what’s known as schools of choice—meaning they’ll accept some students from outside their district’s borders.

Now Governor Snyder wants to make schools of choice mandatory. But many people are against that—including many in the Detroit suburb of Grosse Pointe.

Some say their efforts have elitist overtones. But those leading the charge insist it’s just trying to preserve a community-based education model that works.

Governor Snyder suggested mandatory schools of choice as part of a broader education overhaul. But support for the idea has withered in the legislature—due in no small part to lobbying from the small number of school districts who don’t participate.

Dozens of people showed up for a recent $100-a-ticket fundraiser in Grosse Pointe, a historically-affluent Detroit suburb. The crowd was there to support a non-profit education group, Michigan Communities for Local Control--and included Grosse Pointe teacher and parent Cheryl Lapensee.

“I believe every school should be a good-enough school for children to go to,” Lapensee says. “I don’t think they should have to leave their home neighborhood to be able to go to a school that’s functioning at a level where they should be safe, and in a great learning environment.”

Lapensee’s views could more or less serve as the motto for Michigan Communities for Local Control. The Grosse Pointe-based group is leading grassroots resistance to mandatory schools of choice.

People who favor schools of choice argue this would make education more of a competitive marketplace – where kids who live in poor districts with failing schools will be able to shop around for better ones.

Michigan Communities for Local Control disagrees. The group is run by two Grosse Pointe moms, one of whom is Lynn Jacobs. Jacobs says locally-controlled schools work best, because education should be about more than standardized test scores: it should also be about fostering community.

 “One of the things that makes our community so great is that our kids can walk to school,” Jacobs says. “They can join sports teams, and they’re gonna play with their schoolmates. There’s the fabric of the community.”

While it’s changed socially and demographically in recent years, Grosse Pointe as a community—and a school system--still stands in stark contrast to its neighboring city, Detroit.

Detroit schools have not been locally-controlled for most of the past decade. State-led governance, coupled with declining enrollment, have arguably made Detroit’s already-struggling schools much worse.  It’s also led to a total lack of neighborhood schools in some areas, with children criss-crossing the city—or leaving it altogether.

Of course, it’s no secret that places with more money tend to be more stable communities with better schools. And Grosse Pointe has historically been a white, wealthy community that borders a poor, black one—which leads some people to believe that the community’s strong pushback against schools of choice is more about keeping certain students out than anything else.

But Grosse Pointe State Representative Tim Bledsoe, a Democrat, argues that just isn’t true. He says there’s plenty of affordable housing, and anyone is welcome—so long as they’re willing to put down roots in the community.

“It’s the whole idea of community-based education--which is completely contrary to this idea of shopping for schools, and shopping for school districts,” Bledsoe says.

Bledsoe insists there’s no evidence that schools of choice will improve education for poor children or overall. He says that’s an idea pushed by “free market think tanks” rather than parents or educators.

“Those people believe that the more competition we have within our schools—charter schools, private schools, competition among public schools—that competition breeds improvement in performance and effectiveness,” Bledsoe says. “And that’s just, as far as I’m concerned, a completely mistaken idea.”

Indeed, the market-oriented Mackinac Center for Public Policy has long championed schools of choice.

Michael van Beek is with the Mackinac Center. He admits the mandatory schools of choice proposal is on life support, noting: “If it’s not dead, it’s breathing very slowly and quietly right now.”

And Van Beek says that’s a shame, because he thinks offering school choice is a powerful method to break down the economic and geographic barriers that prevent so many kids from getting a quality education.

Van Beek and others suggest in an era where education is simultaneously becoming more about equity and competition, local control may inevitably take a back seat to other concerns. But neighborhood schools are still a cherished ideal—and some people with the means and inclination to fight for them say they’re still the best model out there.