Schools of Choice and Urban Districts

Nov. 19, 2007
Kaomi Goetz
State and local schools of choice programs are affecting large, urban school districts, but opinions differ on whether that's good or bad. 

Michigan created the schools of choice program in 1996 to give parents more options for their children's education. The program allowed parents to register their child in a neighboring school district without having to live there. But critics say school choice is decimating the state's large, urban districts.

It's early evening and Wendy Tatroe and her 13-year old daughter Karaea sit down in their cozy kitchen. Karaea's blond hair is pulled back from her face and she's quick to fill her mother in as they go over the day's school activities.

The Grand Rapids mother of two is very involved in her children's education. So two years ago when Karaea was nearing the end of elementary school, Tatroe says she and her husband reviewed their options.

"We started looking at middle schools and the year she was going to age out of Palmer, Grand Rapids Northeast and Riverside were combining to make one school. And they had over 300 students going into the sixth grade. And she had some special needs we needed to look at. And so, we decided to look for school of choice."

Tatroe took advantage of a provision called Schools of Choice to move her daughter to a smaller, suburban district. But while the program gives some parents an exit route from a school not meeting their needs, some say it's crippling the state's largest urban districts. That's because when a student leaves the district they take thousands of dollars of state funding with them.

Bernard Taylor is in his second year as superintendent of Grand Rapids and its 22,000 students. He says choice has enabled middle class children to leave in droves.

"Regardless of ethnic background you want to talk about. Because the variable that I think is the definer in this is access to transportation. So if you have it, you have access to choice."

That's because receiving schools don't pay for bussing students transferring under the choice program. But that hasn't stopped more than 7700 students from leaving Grand Rapids Public Schools. According to the district, about 3700 were Caucasian students. About 2,000 were African-American. About 1200 were Hispanic or Latino. The majority of transferring students left for suburban districts, and most left during elementary and middle school. Add the money that goes with them to 60 million dollars' in budget cuts in recent years and historic enrollment declines, and you have real problems.

Taylor says if all the middle class kids leave, the effect is a district made up of mostly minority students, some with special needs or on a free or reduced lunch program.

"I think it's clear, demographically, we're changing, we're reaching the tipping point, racially, financially, sometimes we don't like to talk about it, anytime when an entity changes demographically and people think it's the lack of quality."

But some supporters of school choice say that tipping point isn't all bad because it forces urban districts like Grand Rapids to become more efficient and create new programs to attract students. Ryan Olson of the free-market Mackinac Center for Public Policy says a good example of that is the newly -announced pilot schools program in Grand Rapids.

"This is actually an argument for more choice. As more choices are made available to parents, schools will spring up in neighborhoods where there's demand for more kinds of schools and certain educational services."

Ron Koehler is the assistant superintendent at Kent Intermediate School District. He says the reality is urban districts often have a hard time adapting to the loss of students, their revenue and in many cases, the most involved parents.

"That makes it extremely challenging for an urban district to accomplish the goals of schools of choice, which was, as expressed by Governor Engler, at the time, to better market themselves and do a better job of meeting customer needs."

Nevertheless, Koehler says school choice is here to stay. But changes to the program may be coming. Officials are auditing the program after complaints from parents that Grand Rapids wouldn't allow their children to leave. Area superintendents are also holding quiet discussions. Their biggest concern is a rule which lets students transfer if they have extenuating circumstances such as an imminent family move into a new district. Administrators say parents are citing all sorts of extenuating circumstances to get a transfer that normally would be denied. Results of the audit are expected next month.