School choice: not your father's classroom

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.

Bills would turn Michigan into 'super choice' state

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?

Legislative puzzle

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, 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.

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Skip Sisson
Tue, 11/27/2012 - 9:26am
This is little more than a back door attempt at vouchers.
Tue, 11/27/2012 - 10:11am
First, I automatically discount the opinions of people with hyphenated last names. Every one I have ever known has been off the wall. I am at a loss to appreciate the problem with vouchers. Vouchers have the potential to save the state a ton of money. If the state is spending 7-8,000 per student in its system, and they pay out 3,500 for kids to go somewhere else, instead, that sounds like a pretty good deal for the state. I have talked to our two youngest about different schools, and they are too loyal to their friends to go anywhere. They are both fine athletes, and good students. Any school would be glad to have them, but they don't want to leave, in spite of what they think about their school/or teachers.
Mush Room
Tue, 11/27/2012 - 12:04pm
Suppose Hogwarts was an option, a school that taught witchcraft, sorcery and the dark arts. Would you want your tax dollars to flow to Hogwarts? That's how many feel about all parochial schools and explains why many oppose school vouchers.
Larry Lewis
Tue, 11/27/2012 - 10:14am
Educational Buffets, while it might look good from a distance, unless you are at a high priced restaurant, the Old Country Buffet is full of high calories, surgars and salts. There is little nutritional value in these restaurants yet for feeding the masses it will probably pass. However if you want to cultivate individuals with good taste you might want to educate everyone equally. (I thought seperate was ruled not equal by the Supreme Court) Undercutting the public school system and replacing it with "on-line,"schools leaves the average student minimal interaction with both instructors and other students. Even "Home Schooling," needed to enhance the study with corridinated activities in larger groups. While more choices sounds good we still need to short up on the basics (Reading, Mathematics and Science, not to mention Civics) before we can broaden our scope.
Tue, 11/27/2012 - 10:20am
Looks like a very Pro - Choice education system! Very similar to what has been offered in the European nations for decades, which seemingly outperforms the US in educational attainment while spending less per pupil. Only the which the MEA/Educational establishment would complain about.
Tue, 11/27/2012 - 10:48am
I find the educational environment today much like the auto industry in Michigan of 30-40 years ago. The Big 3 put out inferior cars using "high-paid-job-and-benefits-for-a-lifetime-no-matter-how-crappy-a-product-I-produce" employees. It was, and still is, competition from the likes of Honda, Toyota, Nissan, Mercedes Benz that shook the Big 3 out of their complacency so they could compete. The education system in almost every state (certainly true in Michigan) is dominated by union educators with the same mindset as the UAW. The rise of non-government schools and even charter schools within the public system is FINALLY shaking things up in the mighty kingdom of the MEA/NEA. For decades, money poured into public education in the form of pay, pensions, and almost free healthcare; the quality of the output went in the opposite direction. The idea that if you "spend more on education" you will get better results is a complete, utter fallacy. One only has to look at the last 40 years of results to see it. Innovation in education is needed; and it is not going to come from government schools unless they are forced to compete.
David Waymire
Tue, 11/27/2012 - 10:56am
Actually, the states with the best outcomes -- generally recognized as Massachusetts and Maryland -- spend far more per student than the states with the worse outcomes, like Mississippi, South Carolina and Florida. Time to stop spreading the mantra that "more money won't work." More money spent poorly won't work. But more money spent to attract the best and brightest to education and giving them the right tools will work. Otherwise, why would people spent $20,000 to send their high school children to Cranbrook or Green HIlls? I'm a believer in the Geoffrey Canada (Harlem Experience) theory: Watch what rich people do and copy it. If it works for them, it should work for me. And I don't see any rich people sending their children to schools where the per pupil spending is $1,000 per kid.
sam melvin
Tue, 11/27/2012 - 11:25am
First lansing need to TAKE AWAY THIS LAW.No money to schools that DONOT PASS each child into the NEXT grade..Notes children NO LONGER have to DUE/DOE the same Class allover til the get good grades to go to the next grade ! Engler raise the per-pupil school spending from 1990 ......$4,236 to 2001 ....$ 6,548...... a 56% increase AND WHAT did We get for that MONEY? and on top of that Snyder cut the lottery Money in K-12 BUT GIVES $ 273 MILLION to the Public UNIVERSITIES
sam melvin
Tue, 11/27/2012 - 11:14am
WE have THE BEST SCHOOL IN MICHIGAN VOTED by the SCHOLARS >ALL is need to COPY IT.NO LAW in lansing will bring THE BEST in SCHOOL ..... HOMESCHOOLING by parents (Pay Mothers the Salary of teachers NOW) THE INTERNATIONAL SCHOOL in BLOOMFIELD HILLS is NUMBER .1 UNO .SO FOLLOW THE LEADER STOP THE BEAURACROCY in LANSING THEY DONOT KNOW the FUTURE for our children/grandchildren.THEY cannot even "find"jobs for vetreans.
Jordan Genso
Wed, 11/28/2012 - 12:43pm
Sam Melvin, I just want to get a clarification for your comment:
"HOMESCHOOLING by parents (Pay Mothers the Salary of teachers NOW)"
Are you suggesting that a parent who homeschools one (or several) children should be paid the same from the state as a teacher that has hundreds of students in a public school? I've never heard that suggestion before, if that is your position.
Mush Room
Tue, 11/27/2012 - 11:48am
I think high achieving high school kids and their parents would love the cafeteria: local school classes, online classes, community college classes, maybe even university classes. I think these kids would benefit from these choices, maybe not in a real big way, but still benefit. Since the overall cost to taxpayers doesn't go up for these kids, it's tempting to implement the cafeteria. My youngest would have loved this and would probably have accumulated more AP credits while in high school. The older two, not so much. Therein lies the problem. The proposed cafeteria system will undoubtedly benefit high achieving kids but I'm skeptical if it achieves anything better for the rest and may even degrade the education of the rest. I also don't like the idea of Lansing dictating the rules for local schools. I think the mandates from Lansing are already too confining for local school districts and are preventing them from doing many of the innovative proposals currently being discussed in Lansing and elsewhere. Prop A did this to us (destroyed local control), one of the worst pieces of legislation ever passed in Michigan.
Charles Richards
Tue, 11/27/2012 - 12:26pm
To say " “Decisions aren’t based solely on academics.” is to state the obvious. And to say that parents with children in poor performing schools don't often take advantage of the opportunity to move their children to a different school is also true. But under the proposed legislation all parents would have the option to do so if they chose. That is what is important. Nobody would be required to take advantage of the choices they would have available. But they would have an open door. It was noted that some parents moved their children to schools that weren't making Adequate Yearly Progress. That is not a particularly incisive criticism. A very good school may not be making such progress while a very poor school is doing so.
Chuck Fellows
Tue, 11/27/2012 - 2:45pm
Get the legislature out of the classroom and let teachers teach. The current divide between teacher organizations, business and government is a product of poor management, not union organizing or trouble making. Legislators, bureaucrats and private interests that no nothing about teaching or learning (and apparently not a whole lot about leadership) need to step back, get out of the way and let those that do the work, teachers, students and parents, do the work only they are qualified to do. Get away from the academic, adult centric style of educating and move to a student centric process. These reforms don't get us there by providing false choices, false because they do not address education's fundamental barriers to learning, the first of which is a focus on educating instead of learning. A reform effort which seeks low-cost uniformity that only meets minimum standards is killing our economy, our culture, and us. Our school reform efforts remain focused on yesterday’s needs. Here’s a hint for reform: “Learning is not done to you. Learning is something you choose to do”. Providing a cafeteria of choices by simply cooking the rice in different ways is still providing a diet made up of only rice and it's plain old processed to death white rice at that.
Sun, 12/02/2012 - 11:20am
exactly the eloquence (vularity) and logic (lack of) you'd expect from them
Sun, 12/30/2012 - 4:37pm
1. How does the state plan to handle transportation in this imaginary scenario where a child is taking classes at several different schools? My son currently spends the morning in one high school and the afternoon in a different one, about 5 miles away. The bus that transported him from one school to the other was cut when the state (again) cut funds to the schools. With two working parents and one family vehicle, we are unable to drive him back and forth. So this is yet another example of the state designing a system to benefit the privileged (those families where a parent or nanny is home and a reliable vehicle is readily available). 2. What about special ed students? How do their needs and services fit into this "educational marketplace"? 3. Online classes sound great---but have any of our legislators actually taken one? My son is an "A" student; he took an online history class due to scheduling conflicts in his freshman year and he failed it. (When he took it with a teacher, he got an "A") The online class was boring, didn't engage him, and was way too easy to put off when he had competing priorities (until it was too late to make up the workload). Online classes may work for some kids, but they will not work for many of them---especially those who don't have a parent at home looking over their shoulder. 4. How many new counseling positions does the state plan to fund in order to make this "cafeteria" model a success? Just scheduling classes between two high schools has proven more challenging than I could have ever believed possible. Without the help of my son's awesome counselor, we could never have navigated this system successfully. How will an overworked, over-stressed, single parent with multiple kids trying to sign up for classes in multiple locations possibly put this imaginary scenario into operation? The stacks of paperwork involved, the complications of class availability, the graduation requirements that must be met, transportation....this imaginary system would be an almost inconceivable reality (based on my personal experience). 5. School is about more than just job training (although few people seem to recognize that anymore, except those like our Governor who are rich enough to send their kids to expensive, private prep schools). School is also about socializing, building relationships with other students and with the adults in the school, field trips for "community-based learning", and a chance to try different extracurricular and elective opportunities. How does all of that fit into this grand "cafeteria scheme"? And when a student feels lost, alone, depressed, or violent, will there be a counselor, a school social worker, or another trusted adult to offer help? We've seen what happens when those kids are ignored. It would be awfully refreshing for our legislators to admit that they don't know everything about everything. Maybe they should actually visit some public schools and talk to those of us who experience them every day before trying to redesign such a complex (and critical) system that they appear to know nothing about. Their faith-based economics tell them that a market (any market!!!) is always better, that teachers are unnecessary pieces of trash, and that (apparently) local control is bad. But then, many of these egotistical fools also seem to despise democracy; they attempt to eliminate citizen input/control at every turn. If we end public education in the state, it would be nice if it happened because we citizens wanted it and demanded it, rather than because ALEC or the Chamber of Commerce or some other shadowy collective wrote a big check and purchased a puppet to dance whenever they pull the strings.