Imagine a world where your teenage son chooses high school courses like picking dishes in a cafeteria – a serving of Advanced Placement chemistry in the white collar enclave across the river, Spanish online at the dining room table, an English class at the local community college, band at his home school.
Now imagine that same world, but where schools act less like cafeterias and more like department stores. Billboards promote quick high school math credits at an online branch. A new charter school operating in the old Sears building offers iPads to the first 100 students who enroll. Your son’s home public high school drops its football team in a downsizing caused by lost revenue from plummeting enrollment.
Those competing visions are at the heart of a battle over school reform that could reshape public education in Michigan. Measures being considered in Lansing would radically increase educational choices -- more schools, more online options, more chances to split learning time and the money that goes with it between institutions.
Built around Gov. Rick Snyder’s education philosophy, this package of bills, some introduced and some still in draft form, promise to usher in an era of “super choice” in Michigan’s public schools.
Michigan families already have an array of educational choices available, from local public school to charter schools to online classes, but Snyder and like-minded advocates think there’s room on the shelves for even more.
They call it a reform the state desperately needs to prepare students for higher learning and work in a transforming economy. Opponents fear an uncontrolled market will lead to a dismantling of the state’s public schools.
John Austin, president of Michigan’s elected State Board of Education, calls the concept “choice on steroids.” He recently testified to a legislative panel that the proposals would leave Michigan with “a ‘Wild West’ of unfettered, unregulated new school creation, untethered from the goal of improving learning and student outcomes.” And Austin is just one critical voice being raised as attention turns to bills already known in shorthand as “super choice,” “parent trigger” and “Oxford.”
Will parents and students choose choice?
Setting aside the debate in Lansing (which is expected to continue well into 2013) what exactly would more school choice mean to those who would ultimately use it: parents?
Michigan legislators have before them a variety of public education bills that could fundamentally alter how the state oversees and funds local classrooms:
House Bill 5923: Referred to as the "super choice" bill by some, this measure would significantly rewrite the state school code that governs public education. A variety of special designations could be issued to organizers that, among other things, want to create single-gender schools, or offer classes to tuition-paying foreign students or provide an online school. The bill was introduced in September, but has not received action in the House.
House Bill 6004/Senate Bill 1358: These bills are designed to codify in state law an education oversight authority first brokered via an interlocal agreement between Detroit Public Schools and Eastern Michigan University. The legislation also would mandate a statewide inventory of public school buildings and allow a statewide educational authority to control, use and modify vacant school buildings now under the control of local school districts. The bills were introduced in early November, but have not received votes in either chamber.
Senate Bill 620: Known as the "parent trigger" bill, this measure would allow parents to petition the state to "convert" a traditional public school that is among the 5 percent worst-performing to a "conversion" school with a new operator. It passed the Senate 20-18 in June, but has not received action in the House.
"The Oxford bill": This document isn’t an official piece of legislation, but rather a draft measure developed and presented by Richard McLellan and the Oxford Foundation at the behest of Gov. Rick Snyder. The focus of the draft is a rewrite of the state’s School Aid Act, which governs how money is distributed to public schools.
Not that much, based on research of parental behavior around the nation.
School-choice dynamics, in general, track with consumer behavior in other areas, said Ellen Goldring, a professor of education policy and leadership at Peabody College at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.
When offered choices for the education of their children, Goldring said, parents will frequently say they will base their decisions on academics, or choose what they perceive to be “a good school.” That won’t necessarily be schools with superior academic markers, however.
And when they do choose, they’re less likely to look at published data gathered by state agencies, but instead rely on word-of-mouth recommendations from co-workers, family or church members, the same way one might ask for a advice about any other service.
Goldring and two other colleagues studied charter-school choice in Indianapolis in 2010, comparing test scores of schools parents were leaving to those they were choosing instead. About one-third of parents moved their children to schools that weren’t making adequate yearly progress as defined by the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
“Parents make choices for a complex array of reasons, and one thing we know is that transportation and geography are key,” she said. “If there is no transportation (to a desired school), some things are out of reach for parents.”
The bottom line: “Decisions aren’t based solely on academics.”
Aimed at the ‘best and brightest’?
In a “wild west marketplace,” parents won’t have the information to make good decisions, argues Margaret Trimer-Hartley*, superintendent of University Prep Science and Math charter schools in Detroit. Enrollment at University Prep High School is down 50 this year, even before the options now being considered are added to Michigan’s academic menu.
“There’s no real barometer that parents find useful or actually use,” Trimer-Hartley said. “We compete against schools offering Foot Locker gift cards (to enroll). In a competitive marketplace, you can expect that. But when you look at what drives education, it’s stability.”
Michigan leaders have some reasons to question just how many students would take advantage of the “unbundling” of services being considered.
The state’s lowest-performing schools are required to offer alternatives to their students, through letters to parents listing other schools their children can attend and even offering bus service to those schools. Yet, even among those academically failing schools, only one half of 1 percent of students make the decision to move, according to Michigan Schools Superintendent Mike Flanagan. “Even in those extreme circumstances, they don’t make the choice,” Flanagan said.
Meanwhile, a higher percentage of kids attending high-performing schools choose to move to other districts, Flanagan said. The reason could come down to demographics: Wealthier families (who more often live in districts with high-performing schools) are more likely to have the time and resources to consider options for their kids.
Lansing attorney Richard McLellan*, who led the drafting at Oxford and of HB 5923 and 6004, told Bridge that the state’s “best and brightest” may well take advantage of the academic cafeteria line more than others.
McLellan envisions a system where “an increasing number of the best and brightest can reach for the very challenging classes they can’t get now. We need to let those who have extraordinary talent move on in the system. Our factory model retards those kids.”
As for concerns about parental decision-making, McLellan fired back, “The arrogance of some school officials to parents is just palpable. I don’t agree with it.”
David Campbell, superintendent of the Livingston County Educational Services Agency, praises the concept of offering more choices for exceptional students, but worries what those choices – particularly increased use of online courses – will do for “the unmotivated student.”
“Those with the greatest skills will take advantage of this,” Campbell said, “but let’s not kid ourselves that this is moving the needle on public education.”
Staff Writer Nancy Derringer contributed to this report.
*Trimer-Hartley and McLellan are members of the Bridge Board of Advisers.
Senior Writer Ron French joined Bridge in 2011 after having won more than 40 national and state journalism awards since he joined the Detroit News in 1995. French has a long track record of uncovering emerging issues and changing the public policy debate through his work. In 2006, he foretold the coming crisis in the auto industry in a special report detailing how worker health-care costs threatened to bankrupt General Motors.
Staff Writer Nancy Nall Derringer has been a writer, editor and teacher in Metro Detroit for seven years, and was a co-founder and editor of GrossePointeToday.com, an early experiment in hyperlocal journalism. Before that, she worked for 20 years in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where she won numerous state and national awards for her work as a columnist for The News-Sentinel.