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Mix school choice, state incentives and you get a $400,000 high-schooler

In Birmingham, the school district got $440,000 for one out-of-town high-schooler.

In nearby Novi, the schools received $320,000 for an empty desk.

That’s what you get when you mix a governor’s reform agenda with schools threading the needle between school choice and protesting parents.

The two districts in Oakland County had long opted out of Michigan’s school choice system to allow students – and their state aid money – to attend schools outside their home community. But in recent months – driven, say local school leaders, by darkening financial projections – both took advantage of provisions in state policy to crack open their doors, in exchange for big bucks from Lansing.

For example, when the school board in Birmingham said yes to school choice earlier this year, it wasn’t really about a change of heart on education policy, but because it immediately qualified the district for $430,000 in state “best practices” money.

In 2012, the Legislature set aside $80 million for the 2012-13 school year to provide $52 in additional per-pupil funding to districts that meet seven out of eight "best practices" in education.They range from self-insuring for health plans to physical education plans, and include school choice.

Birmingham Superintendent Daniel Nerad said at the meeting, “If it didn't have the possibility of helping the district's budget situation, this would not be before you.” Board members, in fact, took turns criticizing the choice policy, but voted for it – with a catch.

There would be six spots open in one grade in one school, which was enough to bring the financial windfall to the district.

The vote also earned a scolding from the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, which opined on its blog, “It is unfortunate to see public school officials, whose mission should be to provide the best education possible for students, act in this manner.”

Paul DeAngelis, deputy superintendent, couldn’t care less.

“When (the state) can explain to me how Schools of Choice is a best practice in education, I’ll be happy to listen,” he said. “The ideal is that Schools of Choice provides for students that aren’t being served well (by their residential schools), to go elsewhere. That’s not how it’s being used. It’s being used by districts to take students from others, for their own financial purposes.”

Birmingham’s workaround, he added, was designed to get the maximum benefit and the least financial damage, “a model that would fit the spirit but wouldn’t have long-term impact on us.”

Birmingham spends about $12,000 per pupil, DeAngelis said, and choice students from other districts invariably bring in per-pupil amounts well below that figure, which means the district would take a substantial loss on each one they admit.

In this case, however, it will be only one. Even though six seats were opened, only a single family asked for admittance.

Still, that makes the choice score: Birmingham 1, Novi 0.

Novi’s district is similar to Birmingham – long skeptical of school choice, generally affluent, supportive of its public schools, and eager to not leave a single available aid dollar on the table.

“Our community is not receptive to a broad-based Schools of Choice option, so we tried to identify how we could meet the letter of the law to receive the money,” said Novi Superintendent Steve Matthews.

Matthews said he knew the district wouldn’t be able to meet one of the state’s eight best practices – their gym and health education fell short – but to receive the best-practices bonus of $52 per pupil, they had to meet at least seven. That left enrolling non-resident students under Schools of Choice.

“We identified our (International Baccalaureate) diploma program as having seats available,” Matthews said. The IB diploma, as it’s known, is earned through a demanding academic curriculum that includes community service and a 4,000-word essay. To be properly prepared, incoming juniors would likely already be top students at their old schools. It was a way, Matthews noted, to pre-select a small group of excellent scholars as the avenue to state dollars.

“We were trying to meet the letter of the law, but also recognized the citizens in our community pay a premium for their houses because of the schools, and support them through higher taxes and bond issues,” he said.

In the end, no one even applied to the IB diploma program. The district, however, still collected “about $320,000,” Matthews said.

“They have established the rules,” he said, “and we play by them. We met the requirement. We don’t feel bad about that.”

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