by Paul R. Smyth, Ph.D.
|In Michigan, as in much of the United States, “school choice” has been a popular, albeit controversial, approach to education reform. This Advisor examines recent legislative proposals to expand Michigan’s school choice options to include “statewide open enrollment.” The proposed legislation would allow students more opportunities to attend public schools outside their school district of residence.|
The decade of the 1990s has been an era of change for Michigan’s system of K–12 education. Here, as in other jurisdictions across the nation, a number of the changes have been in the direction of giving students and their families more choice in determining which schools to attend. Advocates of choice believe these changes will improve schools and enhance student learning.
Although school choice programs can take many forms, four variations have been at the heart of the Michigan debate:
- Tuition vouchers, which provide students and their families with public dollars to pay for public or private education at a school of their choice.
- Intra-district choice, which allows students to choose among schools within their own district of residence.
- Charter schools, or public school academies, which are public schools run by nonprofit corporations and given many of the freedoms normally associated with private schools.
- Statewide open enrollment, or inter-district choice, which lifts many of the impediments to students attending a public school outside their district of residence.
Section 2, Article 8, the Michigan Constitution contains strong and specific language prohibiting the use of public tuition vouchers to fund private or religious school education. Consequently, although voucher proposals enjoy some support in Michigan, none will be enacted absent an amendment to the state constitution.
Proponents of school choice, however, succeeded in persuading the Michigan Legislature to adopt intra-district choice and charter school legislation. Under 1991 amendments to the Michigan School Aid Act, all school districts in Michigan with more than one school building serving the same grade level now offer intra-district choice. The idea has been accepted with minimal controversy.
The establishment of charter schools has been much more controversial. In 1993, as part of a comprehensive effort to improve the quality and accountability of K–12 education, the legislature amended the school code to allow the establishment of public school academies. The law was revised in 1994 after the original act was found unconstitutional. As of January 1996, 44 public school academies had been authorized, 23 of which are in operation.
In 1995 bills to allow statewide or inter-district choice were introduced in both chambers of the legislature. The House bills (HBs 4987 and 4988) were introduced by Rep. Jessie Dalman (R), while the Senate bill (SB 639) was introduced by Sen. Bill Schuette (R). SB 639 has passed the Senate and is now before the House Education Committee, along with HBs 4987 and 4988. Strong opposition from Democrats and a lack of unanimity among House Republicans make the prospects for passage uncertain. Informal discussions currently are underway in the House Republican Caucus to create a bill that can attract the 56 votes needed for passage.
Content of the Bills
Under current law, a student needs the permission of his or her district of residence to attend school in another district without paying tuition. The Senate and House bills take this veto power out of the hands of school administrators in a student’s district of residence. If students identify a district that is willing and able to accept them, they are free to attend and their new districts receive the state school foundation grant that follows them—a maximum of $6,653 in 1995-96.
Senate Bill 639 contains provisions regarding the manner in which districts decide who will be accepted. Neither the House nor Senate bills require any district to accept students from outside its boundaries; all districts may opt out of the program. Under SB 639, however, if a district wishes to accept students living in another district and has more applicants than it can accommodate, the selection process must, with few exceptions, be random.
All of the bills are notable in what they do not contain. There is no attempt to deal with such controversial issues as access to transportation, development and dissemination to parents of comparative information on school quality, formation of athletic dynasties, or segregation of schools by race or class. Further, the bills do not limit the number of students a district may accept, nor do they limit the number or percentage of students it can lose.
The Politics of School Choice
Statewide open enrollment is one of the most controversial school choice options. Although there is little objection to choice within the boundaries of a district, inter-district choice arouses strong feelings because it creates direct competition among school districts, locking them into a “zero sum” game, where winners better themselves with resources taken from their less successful neighbors. The proposed inter-district choice bills create strong financial incentives for districts to actively recruit students.
Although school choice has been most vigorously advocated by political conservatives, the concept always has enjoyed support from across the political spectrum. Some of the most influential research supporting choice was published by the Brookings Institute, a center-left think tank in Washington, D.C. In Milwaukee, the architect of a voucher plan that allows students to attend either public or private schools is an African-American mother and supporter of the Reverend Jessie Jackson. In the mid-1980s, Democratic Gov. Rudy Perpich of Minnesota proposed what eventually became the most widely emulated statewide open enrollment plan in the nation.
In recent years, the “market wing” of the choice movement has been highly visible and aggressive. Proponents of market-driven education argue that public schools are at best mediocre and at worst failing. They contend that choice promotes school efficiency and productivity through competition, improves parental involvement, reduces the education bureaucracy, empowers teachers and stimulates innovation, and reduces disparities among schools.
Opponents are skeptical on each of these points. In their view, American schools are not failing, as evidenced by poll results indicating that most students and families are satisfied with their public schools. Opponents therefore contend that statewide open enrollment will have only limited appeal and little effect. They also argue that many of the problems observed in schools originate in broader social pathologies—neglected children, dysfunctional families, poverty—which schools are powerless to address. Finally, opponents argue that unless choice plans also address issues of transportation, development of comparative information on school quality, and inequities in financing, choice may well make things worse by leading to further school stratification along racial lines.
Gov. John Engler is among the most enthusiastic and vocal promoters of school choice. In the governor’s view, under current law, public education is “averse to choice,” though it is something we take for granted in the rest of our lives, and this has proved damaging to schools’ effectiveness. He summarized the problem with public schools this way: “Choice is the exception, monopoly is the rule, and mediocrity is the tolerated outcome.”
Other observers dispute the governor’s conclusions, especially with regard to the various statewide choice proposals. “We aren’t against choice per se,” said Linda Myers, a lobbyist for the Michigan Education Association (MEA). “We support intra-district choice, and we have supported the formation of consortia through the intermediate school districts.” Myers also indicated that the MEA has “rethought” its position on charter schools and now supports the concept as stimulative of “innovation.”
The prospect of inter-district choice, however, strikes Myers as risky. She notes that very serious problems have developed in Massachusetts and other states after the adoption of a statewide choice plan, and she sees the failure of current legislation to deal with the transportation question as a serious flaw. In her view, there is not much evidence that such choice will improve schools, and, absent transportation provisions, there is a real possibility of making the most vulnerable schools worse.
Thomas White, Director of Government Relations for the Michigan Association of School Boards (MASB), says that as an education reform strategy “. . . choice is not the bull’s-eye. In fact, it’s not even on the target.” White believes that the overall effect of open enrollment on Michigan schools will be minimal because few families and students will use the option. He notes that the MASB has not found evidence that choice will improve academic achievement and is concerned about what it perceives as severe limitations in the current legislation. Failure to address the transportation issue is one concern; more important, perhaps, is the “opt out” provision that makes it permissible for districts not to participate.
According to White, parents may not realize that nearby school districts with space will not be obliged to accept their children. Yet unless wealthier districts accept students from poorer areas, choice could become an empty promise for students with the most serious educational needs. “They got into trouble with this in Texas,” White said in reference to a plan that state recently adopted. “Parents who wanted to exercise choice had trouble finding schools to accept them, and they felt they had been sold a bill of goods.”
White also worries that, inasmuch as the concept of school quality is not well understood, market competition may reward districts that offer clever marketing rather than education excellence. He further points out that as schools lose resources, some will reach a point where they cannot possibly recover. Instead, they will atrophy, offering a progressively inferior education to the students left behind.
William Bedell, Superintendent of the Romulus Schools, believes that the recent experience of his district dramatizes the problems with statewide open enrollment. Currently, about 30 percent of Romulus students are African-American. The district has to turn down approximately 100 requests per year to attend school elsewhere. The vast majority of the applicants are white, and the schools they want to attend have a much higher percentage of whites than does Romulus.
Bedell notes that racial divisions are a reality. “I can’t know for certain the motivation of each family,” he said, “but when the students who want to leave are white, and the districts they want to attend are predominantly white, it’s hard to conclude that race isn’t a factor.”
He is troubled that students are leaving for nonacademic reasons, which penalizes schools for factors that are beyond their control. “I believe that our programs compare very favorably with neighboring districts,” he said, noting that Romulus has made substantial and widely praised investments in computers, fiber optic cables, and other advanced technology. Bedell claims that his district could lose as much as $1 million per year. While he doesn’t like interfering with student and family wishes, he feels an obligation to protect the students left behind.
Supporters of open enrollment, such as Michael Williamson, a policy specialist with the State Board of Education, and Phil Ginotti, chief of staff to Senator Bill Schuette, don’t find such arguments convincing. They note that Michigan already offers choice for students and families—if they are well enough off to move.
Both believe that the transportation issue is separable from the right to school choice. “Our laws grant us lots of freedoms without providing us the financial means to exercise them,” Williamson said. He has confidence that once the right to school choice is established, parents will be innovative and creative in finding the transportation necessary to exercise their new option.
Williamson also challenges any suggestion that choice would weaken schools by “skimming” the best students and the most active, involved parents. He believes it is far more likely that the students who are not succeeding in a given district will be the most likely to leave.
Ginotti takes issue with suggestions that choice will increase racial and economic segregation. “The fact is, there is a high degree of segregation now, and it’s hard to see how choice could make it worse,” he said. Ginotti also notes that there is considerable evidence that minorities are very responsive to opportunities for choice; he insists that open enrollment will provide them with educational opportunities beyond what they now have.
Williamson concedes it is unlikely that many students will actually leave their district of residence, but believes that choice, in all its forms, will create an improved educational climate. The new funding approach of dollars following students is, in his view, a powerful engine for change. Parents and students have an incentive to compare and an option to move. This inevitably will stimulate creativity and innovation in teachers and schools.
Ginotti agrees but stresses other points as well, such as school efficiency and the rights of parents. He notes that districts with empty space exist right next door to districts that are growing and adding classrooms. Through open enrollment, districts that have lost population will have the opportunity to reinvigorate their schools, while relieving some of the pressure on districts with growing school-age populations.
With regard to Senate Bill 639, however, Ginotti prefers to keep the focus firmly on student and family rights. He notes that open enrollment was a reality in Michigan prior to 1982, when a concern over the establishment of athletic dynasties caused the legislature to intervene. Since the Michigan High School Athletic Association now has the tools to address this problem, the rights of students and families should be restored. Ginotti concedes that parents and students may occasionally choose poorly, but insists that it is their right to do so. As Senator Schuette said at a House Education Committee meeting, “Who knows best—parents or the system?”
Research on Choice
Both proponents and opponents of open enrollment can cite studies that support their point of view. In general, however, the literature on school choice is not extensive, and research on the effects of statewide open enrollment even less so. Still, a review of some of the most recent comprehensive studies of school choice permits forming some general conclusions about the likely effect of open enrollment on student academic achievement, school improvement, and the racial and economic segregation of schools
The research suggests that if there is a link between school choice and academic achievement—defined as performance on standardized tests—it is weak at best.
Although the link between choice and achievement has yet to be convincingly demonstrated, there is very good evidence that choice improves schools in other important ways—chiefly, by empowering families and students and creating incentives for teachers to innovate.
The often-expressed concern that open enrollment could lead to the further segregation of students along racial and class lines is plausible and should be taken seriously.
Choice and Academic Achievement
The essential question here is whether implementing choice programs, including statewide open enrollment, will transform and improve schools. There certainly are researchers who believe that choice has transformational power. Perhaps the strongest statement in support of choice was made by John Chubb and Terry Moe in
Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools:
Without being too literal about it, we think reformers would do well to entertain the notion that choice is a panacea. . . . Choice is a self-contained reform with its own rationale and justification. It has the capacity all by itself to bring about the kind of transformation that, for years, reformers have been seeking to engineer in myriad other ways.
Although Chubb and Moe were making the case primarily for tuition vouchers, they claim to have found a statistically meaningful link between choice and student achievement. Their work has been widely embraced by choice advocates, but a number of qualified observers have called their major conclusion into question.
For example, a 1992 special report on school choice by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching noted that the research made it “difficult to conclude that choice itself will drive academic achievement through competition.” Amy Stewart Wells, Professor of Educational Policy at UCLA, and Peter Cookson, Associate Provost at Adelphi University, have written extensively on the choice question, and both find Chubb and Moe’s findings and research design wanting. Cookson, in fact, asks whether Chubb and Moe have not “. . . created a very elaborate analytic super structure on a very small and shaky statistical foundation.”
At the very least, it seems safe to say that if there is a link between choice and academic performance, it is a weak one and not generally accepted among education researchers. Perhaps a link between choice and achievement will be determined more firmly in the future as researchers evaluate choice in more jurisdictions over a longer period of time.
It is important to note that one reason the literature is so inconclusive on this point is that the type of research that would prove or disprove the efficacy of choice is formidably hard to do. Even if one could agree on the proper dependent variable or measurement of achievement—performance on standardized tests like the SAT or MEAP, for instance—there still would be a problem in explaining any observed variation. Correlation is not causation. If students in a choice program did well on a standardized test, it could be because of choice. But it also could be the result of such other factors as the socioeconomic status of their families or superior teachers or facilities, acting singly or in combination.
The use or misuse of test scores generated by students involved in choice programs in Manhattan’s Community School District 4 in East Harlem exemplify the research problem. Reading scores unquestionably went up during some years when choice policies were in effect, prompting a number of commentators, including several from the Manhattan Institute, to claim that this provided “proof” that choice worked.
Other commentators, however, found such claims to be in advance of the evidence. Reading scores also increased throughout the New York City school system (which did not have school choice) during the period in question, and math scores in District 4 actually declined. Further, soon after District 4 reading scores peaked, they started to decline. The authors of the report issued by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching concede that District 4 made progress during some years and that choice may have contributed. They and other researchers, however, insist that stronger claims as to the link between choice and achievement in District 4 are anecdotal and not supported by a careful review of the relevant facts.
The Carnegie Foundation report suggests there are other reasons to doubt that choice is the panacea for America’s education ills. The foundation’s research shows that comparatively few families actually exercise inter-district school choice in states where it is available. The table shows that in 1992 the percentage of students enrolling in inter-district choice programs in the seven states with comprehensive plans ranged between .1 and 1.8 percent. These data are three years old and do not include the experience of such states as Texas, which recently implemented a statewide plan. It is, however, significant that after some five years of statewide open enrollment in Minnesota, less than 2 percent of the state’s school population was exercising its right to cross district lines. The research also found that many families and students who exercise choice do so for reasons of convenience, such as proximity to the workplace—not for the quality of education.
It is important to point out that there are many means of fostering excellence. Proponents of choice often justify their position on the grounds that American schools are being out-performed by their counterparts in Europe and Japan. Putting aside the question of whether this is actually true, it is clear that whatever Europe and Japan have achieved educationally has been driven by centralized, state-controlled curricula and rigorous testing—an approach that would be an anathema to many choice advocates. Thus, choice supporters find themselves in the position of admiring the achievement of Japanese and European students, while distrusting the methods used to obtain those high levels of achievement.
Choice and School Improvement
Even if the link to academic achievement is not firmly established, choice has been shown to make other very positive contributions to school quality. Peter Cookson puts the matter this way:
. . . the farther one gets from the technical core of instruction, the more significant the effects of choice appear. By this I mean that the process of choosing schools is perhaps more important than the measurable, tangible outcomes of school choice that so obsess the research community. Perhaps the most important outcome of school choice is the sense of ownership students and families can have if they are able to choose schools creatively.
Research conducted in Minnesota, for example, finds dramatic increases in student aspiration levels and satisfaction with schools. Higher graduation rates and higher levels of parent and teacher satisfaction rates also were reported. The “empowerment of teachers” by school choice appears to be particularly important. Almost all forms of choice plans involve more site-based decision making for teachers and encourage creativity in the design of courses and programs. Indeed, the Carnegie Foundation suggests that the value of choice programs is most apparent in its capacity to liberate teachers.
Again, the research summarized above is based on small numbers of students and is not exclusive to statewide open enrollment programs. Nevertheless, the fact that almost all studies suggest high rates of student, parent, and teacher satisfaction is impressive.
The fact is that choice, in all its manifestations, is very popular. In a democracy, this counts for something. A review of the literature on school choice reveals the depths of its popularity. In 1990 the journal Phi Delta Kappan conducted a poll in which parents were asked whether they would favor or oppose allowing students to choose among public schools regardless of where they live. Approximately 62 percent of respondents favored the idea. The survey also revealed that support for choice was stronger among nonwhite parents.
These findings closely parallel those of an EPIC/MRA poll commissioned by the Detroit Free Press and released in June 1995. In this survey of Michigan residents, slightly more than half of respondents agreed that parents should be able to use tax dollars to send their children to any school. Nearly half of the respondents thought charter schools were a good idea; 59 percent of African-American respondents felt this way.
Choice and Racial and Economic Segregation
Despite the popularity of school choice programs, advocates of choice continue to face a number of thorny questions regarding the potential effect on the racial and class makeup of schools and the educational opportunities for poor and minority students. These questions are especially relevant concerning statewide open enrollment programs, which, more than any other choice program, put schools into direct competition for students and resources.
Important questions about the effect of statewide open enrollment programs such as those proposed for Michigan include:
- Will white students use choice to abandon racially mixed schools in favor of schools with a higher concentration of whites?
- Will wealthier suburban schools willingly open their doors in large numbers to poorer students from urban areas?
- Will poorer parents and students have access to the information they need to make choices, and will they have access to transportation to make the promise of choice a reality?
- Is it realistic to expect poor and wealthy districts to compete directly for students and resources?
The experience of both Iowa and Minnesota suggests the real possibility of white flight. The New York Times reported in 1992 that white students were departing the Des Moines, Iowa, school district in large numbers to attend more affluent, predominantly white schools in the suburbs. The Minnesota open enrollment plan contains a provision that prohibits students from transferring out of a district in which they are in the minority into one in which they would be in the majority. Yet this has not eliminated white flight. In some Minnesota districts that are white by a slim majority, white students are choosing to attend suburban schools in which the concentration of whites is even higher
Conversely, there is a question whether, under the proposed legislation, wealthier districts will accept poorer students if they were not forced to do so. Again, all statewide open enrollment plans proposed for Michigan allow districts to opt out of the program. There may well be an economic incentive, but some suburban parents may have moved to their present location precisely to avoid racially and economically integrated schools. These same parents may object to students from lower-taxing districts being admitted to their schools, especially if they perceive that the parents of these students have not been as supportive of school millages.
Another important question is whether enough parents of students in the poorer districts will be able to take advantage of choice. Recently released research by the Harvard Graduate School of Education indicates that the success of choice programs is not automatic, even in intra-district choice plans where the odds are clearly most favorable. The authors of the research concede that there always will be parents who seek out the best options for their children, but if a significant number of low-income families fail to participate, the result could be less diversity. They also note that transportation could well be the key to maintaining diversity.
Finally, although it is unlikely that huge numbers of students will take advantage of choice, there is likely to be competition for students and resources in some localities. Therefore, the question of what happens to students in schools that lose the competition is highly relevant. In this regard, several researchers argue that competitive market analogy has serious limitations when it comes to public schools. Unlike private businesses, public schools cannot control their inputs—in this case, the students who depend on them for education. Schools also cannot control conditions in the surrounding community, such as poverty, crime, drug trafficking, and urban blight, though these may well influence their ability to attract and retain students.
Further, a district that is losing students and resources cannot take the rapid reform measures that a private business can take. The reality is that there is currently a funding gap of as much as $5,000 between what the richest and poorest schools in Michigan can spend per pupil each year. This alone makes it hard for the poorer schools to compete. If, as the result of choice, poorer districts lose money, their competitive position will be even worse.
Unlike private businesses, schools cannot raise money independently to improve the physical plant, and they have little flexibility in reducing labor costs. The last teachers to be let go will be the most senior, who command the highest salaries. Thus, although the idea that inefficient or under-performing schools could simply close sounds appealing, in practice it would be a slow and painful demise, affecting students, parents, and school employees.
Is There Middle Ground?
One of the problems with finding a middle ground is that the debate on school choice is strongly ideological and involves a clash of powerful establishments on both sides. Neither side wants to concede that its opponents may have a point. The research suggests that a statewide open enrollment plan as proposed for Michigan is defensible for a number of reasons, but it also carries with it potential drawbacks that must be acknowledged and ultimately addressed.
In the first place, opponents of SB 639 and other bills creating choice must recognize that inter-district choice is very unlikely to have devastating consequences for Michigan’s system of public education as a whole. Some people who vigorously opposed school choice in the form of charter schools now concede that their opposition may have been overstated and that the ability of charter schools to stimulate innovation is worthwhile.
If the experience of other states is any guide, parents and students will exercise this new right in relatively limited numbers. Yet even though there is scant evidence that many parents will exercise choice, the idea is popular. Many feel that if a family is able to reach agreement with a school district to allow their children to attend, administrators in their district of residence have no right to interfere. In this sense, choice comports with the public’s idea of what is right and fair.
At the very least, statewide open enrollment would allow families and students greater flexibility in meeting their individual needs. But as has been shown in many instances, choice—whether in the form of charter schools, intra-district choice, or statewide open enrollment—has a positive effect on student and parent satisfaction and on teacher creativity. In the long run, this could lead to positive change and even improvements in student achievement that choice has thus far not produced.
On the other hand, proponents of choice must concede that as of now there is little evidence that choice enhances student achievement. Proponents also must concede that the institution of statewide open enrollment in Michigan could well have negative consequences for some school districts by further stratifying schools along class and racial lines. This is especially true since neither the Senate nor the House bills propose any mechanism to prevent this from occurring.
Minnesota, by contrast, has in place provisions to limit the negative consequence of statewide open enrollment and extend the promise of choice to all families: Districts with space available must accept students; the state has taken great care to develop and disseminate school quality information to parents; a modest transportation reimbursement program for the poorest students is in place; and the open enrollment policy has specific policies to forestall resegregation.
Michigan’s proposed legislation lacks these provisions: Districts can opt out of the program at will; transportation needs are not addressed; school information is limited to MEAP and the Michigan School Report (which is very limited in its ability to measure school quality); and there is no mechanism that would limit the number of students a district could lose or gain, or any provision to inhibit economic and racial stratification. While the school choice proposals have merit, they can be improved if amended to address these issues.
Sources and Suggested Reading
School Choice: A Special Report. Princeton, N.J.: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, 1992.
Chubb, John E., and Terry Moe. Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools. Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institute, 1990.
Cookson, Peter W. School Choice: The Struggle for the Soul of American Education. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1994.
Wells, Amy Stewart. Time to Choose: America at the Crossroads of School Choice Policy.New York, N.Y.: Hill and Wang, 1993.
Dr. Robert Docking on School Choice
Dr. Robert Docking, Public Sector Consultants’ affiliated consultant for education policy, supports school choice but cautions that this dynamic approach to education reform contains risks as well as benefits. Docking challenges as inaccurate any suggestion that learning in Michigan’s public schools has declined, and he doubts that increased choice and competition can solve school problems caused by poverty, hunger, or poor parenting.
Still, he is convinced that broadly instituting the principle of choice has the potential to improve schools and enhance student performance for two reasons:
Fairness also is an issue. Families with sufficient means can exercise school choice now by moving from one district to another. Statewide open enrollment gives families of more modest means the same option.
On the other hand, Docking argues that the open enrollment plans proposed for Michigan have problems that can offset the benefits of choice.
With regard to this second point, Docking stresses that it makes economic sense for a district, if it has the space, to accept these students, since the incremental costs of educating them will be minimal. He argues, however, that it may be difficult to educate the public on this point, and that local politics may undercut the promise of choice.
Above all, Docking stresses that school choice is an experiment, the full effects of which cannot be fully evaluated for five to eight years. One thing is certain—any downsizing brought on by school choice will not save money in the short term. Buildings cannot be closed until enough students leave, and the teachers, who are retained will be the most senior teachers, drawing the highest salaries.
The bottom line? No one can confidently predict the full effects of school choice. Dr. Docking believes that the risks are real, but the potential benefits of choice justify taking them.
Paul Smyth, Ph.D.
Paul is an affiliated consultant for Public Sector Consultants. Dr. Smyth, who holds a doctorate in English from Michigan State University and is a former Michigan Department of Commerce policy analyst, has consulted on many policy issues, including education, the environment, health care, criminal justice, and insurance.
This publication was prepared with research assistance from Laurie A. Cummings, Senior Consultant for Economic and Education Policy, Public Sector Consultants. It was edited by Christine F. Hollister, with design assistance from Dyan Iansiti.