Michigan students are finding that the grass isn’t always greener in the next school playground.
More and more families are opting to move their children out of the schools they would attend by residency to neighboring districts through Michigan’s popular school of choice program. But a new study for the first time reveals that fewer than half stay in that neighboring district. And the students who most often bounce between schools are the students most likely to be hurt academically by the instability.
That churn may add fuel to the contentious issue of school choice. “There’s a bit of a revolving door (between schools),” said Joshua Cowen, associate professor at Michigan State University and lead author of a groundbreaking study of Michigan’s school of choice program. “That’s surprising.”
School choice explodes
Michigan’s school of choice policy officially began in 1994 as part of the Prop A change in school finance, allowing school districts the option of allowing students from other school districts to enroll in their schools. The same policy change allowed the creation of charter schools.
Today, more than 80 percent of school districts allow school of choice students to enroll. About 100,000 kids – one in 16 Michigan K-12 students – attend classes in traditional school districts outside their communities. Another roughly 136,000 students are enrolled in charter schools.
Charter schools have gotten a lot of research attention, but little notice has been paid to Michigan’s massive movement of kids between traditional school districts, said Venessa Keesler, deputy superintendent for accountability at the Michigan Department of Education. Keesler is listed as a co-author of the study, but the study was conducted independently by MSU researchers.
“We need to understand what is going on there (in schools of choice),” Keesler said.
Choice has given families more freedom to enroll their children where they think they’ll get the best education, but critics of the program say it’s also wreaked havoc with district budgets, as schools struggle to determine how many students will show up in their classrooms each fall. State funding of at least $7,176 follows the student, whether they enroll in their home district or in a school of choice.
While the economic impact of the state’s schools of choice policy has been well documented, less was known about the school-of-choice students themselves. The just-released MSU study is the first to offer conclusive answers about who is leaving their home school districts, and for how long.
The records of nearly 3 million students between 2005-06 and 2012-13 were analyzed in the study, conducted by two Michigan State researchers at MSU’s Education Policy Center and Keesler. The study focused on students who left their home districts for other traditional public school districts, not charter schools.
Michigan’s most vulnerable students are most likely to use school of choice, the study found. According to the report:
- Low-income students are more likely to opt out of their home schools for classrooms in neighboring districts than their higher-income classmates in their schools.
- African-American students use school of choice to switch school districts at a greater rate than other students.
- Students who are struggling academically are more likely to switch schools than their classmates who are earning good grades. “If families feel they’re being ill-served by their school, they look for better options,” Cowen said. “If you’re doing well, you don’t leave.”
But those same at-risk students are the ones who are most likely to give up on their schools of choice, according to the study.
Among students who enrolled in kindergarten at a school-of-choice district, only 40 percent remained in a school of choice program by fifth grade.
The average length of stay at an out-of-home-district school: under three years.
“It’s not a program that kids make an academic career out of,” Cowen said. “It’s a pattern really similar to general mobility within an urban district. It’s the same kids who are bouncing around.”
In 2012-13 alone, 26,305 students transferred from their home districts to school of choice districts. That same school year, 16,138 transferred out of school of choice districts, most of whom likely returned to the schools they would attend by residency.
That’s one-in-40 Michigan kids shuttling in or out of school of choice programs every year.
That matters, because studies show that the more students bounce between schools, the less they learn.
The newly released study of Michigan school-of-choice students does not include data on the impact of the transfers on student learning, but previous studies from other states show that “Kids do worse in their first post-transfer year, even if it’s a better school,” Cowen said.
MDE’s Keesler said student mobility and its impact on learning is an issue Michigan needs to study more. While this report offers initial insights, more data needs to be analyzed before any policy implications can be considered, she said.
The report does not take a position on whether schools of choice are a net positive or negative for Michigan students.
What’s going on?
The high level of school of choice churn doesn’t surprise Gary Naeyaert, executive director of the Great Lakes Education Project, a nonprofit that advocates for quality education choice in Michigan.
“We can’t support choice without supporting their desire to return to their home district if it’s not working out for them,” Naeyaert said. “People are looking for a better outcome, and they think a change of scenery might be better. But the grass isn’t always greener.
“Parents have to be good consumers,” Naeyaert said. “National studies show students who exercise choice, the vast majority go from a lower performing school building to a higher performing school building.”
MSU’s Cowen agreed that most studies conducted in other states show students move to higher-performing schools, but the Michigan study didn’t look at that question.
Those higher-achieving schools, however, don’t appear to be a permanent answer for the majority of school of choice students in Michigan. The same low-income, mostly African-American students who were struggling in their home school districts are the students most likely to switch back out of school of choice, according to the study.
“The results are fairly unambiguous,” Cowen said. “There’s a difference between those who switch and those who don’t. Something’s going on.”