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End of Public Education

Apr 25, 2017

When I was a child, there was this widespread quaint notion that children ought to attend the public schools where they lived. Except for a few kids that went to Catholic schools, and one who won a scholarship to Cranbrook, everybody did.

This was a middle-class to working-class suburban Detroit district, virtually all white, in the era shortly before busing was first considered as a remedy for de facto segregation. There were no very rich people, but some doctors and lawyer’s kids did go to school with the children of shop rats and assembly line workers. There was concern about quality, but as far as I remember, nobody talked about pulling their kids out and sending them to a better district.

Charter schools hadn’t been invented. Private schools were not only beyond most people’s means, they seemed somehow vaguely unpatriotic, at least to those of us who grew up on a diet of World War II movies, where O’Malley was in school with Rosenberg and D’Annunzio and Lowell and all four wound up in the same landing craft headed for Okinawa.

There was concern about quality, and conscientious mothers lobbied their neighbors to support proposals raising millage rates.

Property taxes were the main source of school funding before Proposal A came in 1994, and communities had considerable latitude over what they spent. But you wanted a public education, and if your parents moved to a different district, you had to change schools.

Well, we are in a different world, with a bewildering array of options. Some districts have become nightmares that any parent who can is attempting to flee. They often can escape, since for the last twenty years, Michigan has had a Schools of Choice program, which enables parents in dubious districts to shop for better ones.

Not surprisingly, the Grosse Pointe Public Schools are much in demand. For many years, the five Grosse Pointes refused to participate in Schools of Choice. But times change. Even the Pointes have been hit with budget cuts and significantly declining enrollment.

So now the Grosse Pointe Board of Education is considering charging students from outside the district a whopping $13,000 tuition fee. Any student from, say, Detroit who wanted to come there would have to plunk that much down, and have a clean school record and at least a 2.0 grade average. The school board hasn’t definitely decided to do this.

One member said she thought some parents who live in the district might pull their kids out in protest. Some wonder if it would be legal, not to mention ethical, to charge tuition for public, state-supported education. Grosse Pointe hasn’t finally decided.

But if they do this, and it is allowed to stand, it will likely be the end of public education. If Grosse Pointe can charge $13,000, maybe Okemos can get away with charging an $8,000 fee. And if we can get outsiders to pay, why not charge those who live there something, too?

Anyone too poor to afford to pay the local public school can go to an inferior unregulated charter in someone’s basement. We might ask ourselves if this is the future we really want. Or whether it might make more sense to do the right thing and just fix the public schools instead.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.