School choice producing segregation in districts across the state

Holland, Mich. – For more than a decade, Holland Public Schools has watched its enrollment fall, prompting the closure – and demolition – of multiple schools.

The decline is not the result of an aging community with fewer, school-age children. Rather, it’s largely a reflection of Michigan’s generous school choice policies. Choice has, consciously or not, left districts like Holland not only scrambling for students, but more racially segregated as its white students leave, often for districts that are less diverse.

“When school choice started, that decline started,” said Brian Davis, superintendent of the Holland district. In 2000, Holland had 15 school buildings; it now has eight. About one-in-three students living within the district are now being educated in another district or charter school. Because state education dollars follow students to their new district or charter, Davis said that Holland’s white flight has shaken the district’s finances.

In the two decades since Michigan adopted school choice, Holland’s white enrollment has plummeted 60 percent, with 2,100 fewer white students. Today, whites comprise 49 percent of school-age children living in the district, but only 38 percent the school population (Hispanics make up 47 percent of Holland schools).

From Holland to metro Detroit, Flint to Jackson, tens of thousands of parents across Michigan are using the state’s schools of choice program to move students out of their resident districts and into ones that are more segregated, a Bridge analysis of state enrollment data shows.

Last week, Bridge showed how “choice” has made several metro Detroit districts less diverse, with white students moving to whiter districts and African-American students increasingly gravitating to almost-entirely-black charter schools.

Today, Bridge chronicles segregation patterns in districts across the state. You can use this Bridge database to see if choice has impacted student demography in your district.

SEARCH: How ‘school choice’ has changed Michigan school districts

Reasons differ, but results are similar

As white students left Holland’s schools, poor and Hispanic children increasingly became the face of the district. Today, 70 percent of Holland students are eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch, more than double the district’s poverty rate when choice began.

Many of those who left Holland’s schools didn’t go far. More than 400 students who live in the district now attend Black River Public School, a charter where 74 percent of students are white. Black River is just over a mile from Holland High School.

Another 255 Holland students drive east to the Zeeland Public Schools, which are 77 percent white.

Steve Grose, president of the Holland Public Schools board of education, has watched as thousands who live in his district take their kids elsewhere. One of his own has already graduated from Holland schools and two are currently in high school. Grose, who is white, said he is glad he stayed and embraced the diversity of the schools, which are also 7 percent African American.

“I’d say they’re getting a better education because of the rich diversity,” he said.

Yet across the state, thousands of parents are making a different decision, using choice to direct their children to less diverse traditional public or charter school districts.

The reasons given vary: Better resources, less racial friction, higher test scores, a safer environment. Advocates say parents are simply choosing schools that are better for the needs of their children, and deny that racial animus drives the majority of school choice decisions.

“Parents are making choice not on that issue (race),” said Dan Quisenberry, president of Michigan Association of Public School Academies, or MAPSA, the state’s largest charter school advocacy group. “They’re making choice based on, ‘How does this fit? Is it going to work’” for their child?

If all schools were equally successful, Quisenberry said, more families would likely choose a diverse school. But academic quality is the most important reason parents choose another school, he said.

Indeed, Black River test scores are among the highest in the state. Its high school scored well even when those scores are adjusted for poverty levels, which are less than half those at Holland High School. But it’s also true that Holland High performed well, when adjusted for poverty, on Bridge Magazine’s 2015 Academic State Champs.

Meanwhile, Zeeland’s two high schools, West and East, had higher overall scores than Holland but, when adjusted for poverty levels, one of the best predictors of academic success, Zeeland schools were about average.

Digging deeper into the data, white students who remained in Holland schools performed higher in some grades than white students in Zeeland and Black River and at other times lower, but often comparable, according to the recent M-STEP scores released by the state.

Ben DeGrow, education policy director at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a free-market think tank based in Midland, acknowledged that the state’s school choice laws can be problematic for districts that lose students. But he argued that the process can be made more equitable for lower-income, more vulnerable students by tweaking the choice laws. For example, providing free school transportation for choice students would allow more poor children to move to better schools, which can be a hurdle for families without cars. DeGraw also suggested eliminating the ability of individual districts to not participate in the choice program. Currently, some of the state’s best districts, such as Grosse Pointe and Dearborn, which border Detroit, do not accept outside students.

“Schools of choice can be messy for school districts,” DeGrow said. “But for parents it can be a lifeline.”

Segregation growing

Regardless of the reasons students leave their home districts, choice has resulted in more segregation in Michigan’s public schools.

“The outcomes we can measure show it's leading to increased segregation and increased burdens for districts,” said Gary Miron, a researcher and education professor at Western Michigan University who studies school choice data. “If we are talking about choice as a market tool and we apply it as a market tool, there's going to be winners and losers. Mostly kids are losing and your public schools are being damaged.”


  • In the 2009-10 school year, roughly 64 percent of choice students across the state moved to a less diverse district. That rate is now approaching 70 percent, a Bridge review of student residency and demography data shows.
  • The number of school districts statewide where fewer than half the students are white rose from 38 a decade ago to 55 last year.
  • The number of charter schools where students of color are in the majority went from 119 in 2005 to 182 last year.
  • In Atherton schools just outside Flint, nearly 90 percent of school-age children living within the district are white, but just 60 percent of the district’s students are. The top destination of the students who are leaving: Grand Blanc schools (73 percent white enrollment) and Goodrich schools (93 percent white enrollment).
  • As white students use choice to transfer to districts or charters with even higher white enrollment numbers, African-American students are using the same law to attend predominantly black charter schools. Statewide, more than 93 percent of the 75,300 African-Americans students in Michigan attending a charter school last year were in a majority-minority charter school. That figure is 97 percent in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties.

Education researchers say disadvantaged minority students benefit academically and socially from a more integrated education environment. They also note studies showing that integration can help all students.

“Integrating schools by race and income is one of the ways you can raise achievement,” said John Austin, president of the Michigan State Board of Education.

Austin, a Democrat who has been critical of the state’s aggressive approach to school choice and charter expansion laws, said the state’s current system has not produced better academic outcomes for students and needs to be reconsidered. Choice, he said, has to lead to classroom improvement, not just mobility. “It has to be part of a strategy to increase achievement levels,” he said.

Progressive critics have long railed against Michigan’s school choice and charter school policies, noting that they were sold as a way to bring innovation to a stagnant public school system. National testing shows that Michigan, which has had choice since 1996, has fallen markedly in national measures of classroom performance. As one example, the state is now ranked 41st in 4th grade reading scores, from 28th in 2003.

With some raising questions about charters and choice, state education officials have begun taking a data-driven look at how both programs work.

Venessa Keesler, a deputy superintendent for the Michigan Department of Education, noted that initial research indicates that students who used choice to change districts do not perform better, on average, academically and that many students who left for another district often return.

The next phase will focus on why parents choose to leave, Keesler said. It may include surveying parents. But she said it’s unlikely MDE will revamp the state’s popular school choice program, which more than 300,000 students now participate in, or 20 percent of the state’s public school population.

“Schools of choice is not high on the ‘change’ agenda right now,” Keesler said. “We support parent choice, for whatever reason they make it.”

One charter’s appeal

In Holland, the top “choice” destination is Black River Public School, a charter school founded over 20 years ago when charters were first allowed in Michigan. It gets more than 80 percent of its students from Holland and nearby West Ottawa Public Schools.

If Black River’s demography mirrored the makeup of the districts it draws from, just under half of its students would be white. Instead, it’s nearly three-quarters white.

Grose, the Holland board president, speculated that Black River may not attract as many poor or Hispanic students because of its unusual requirement that students can’t graduate unless they have been accepted to a four-year college or university.

That provision may scare off some poor or non-English-speaking families who may have financial or other concerns about college, Grose said. In Holland’s public schools, 70 percent of students are poor and 11 percent are English language learners. At Black River, only 20 percent of students are poor and 1.3 percent are English language learners.

Shannon Brunink, the head of Black River, said the school’s college acceptance requirement is intended to create a college-going culture, and “absolutely is not a self-selecting” policy to increase segregation. He noted that the lottery to get into Black River is open to anyone and that so many students want in that there’s a waiting list. (In May, MAPSA named Brunink the group’s Administrator of the Year).

Davis, the Holland superintendent, said he knows several current Holland students on the Black River waiting list, ready to leave should they get the chance. His more diverse district has little choice but to carry on, fighting a system he said is rooted in “economics and race,” as more students move elsewhere.

“We shouldn’t have to fight this hard to educate our kids,” he said. “We just shouldn’t.”

Districts hit hardest by choice

Top 10 districts losing students to other districts

These districts saw the highest percentage of students opt for another traditional district elsewhere, led by Ecorse which saw nearly half of it's students leave. Click on a district to see where students went and differences in demography.

 % White students
DistrictStudents in districtLeft for another
public school district
Percent leavingSchool-age
School enrollmentGap
Mount Clemens2996139447%5121-30
East Detroit6985295442%37.218.6-18.6
Iron Mountain114846040%91.989.5-2.4
South Lake209183140%61.841.9-19.9
New Haven242393038%80.870.6-10.2

Top 10 districts losing students to charter schools

Nearly half of the students who live in the Detroit Public Schools attend a charter school. Many city school districts across Michigan have seen thousands of parents choose charters over the struggling traditional public schools. Click on a district to see where students went and differences in demography.

 % White students
DistrictStudents in districtLeft for a charter schoolPercent leavingSchool-ageDistrict enrollmentGap
Grand Rapids27272678824.9%3523.1-11.9

Note: Minimum of 1,000 students living in the district. Source: Michigan Department of Education, U.S.Census


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Carol Waltman
Tue, 09/20/2016 - 9:43am
I see the problem as not with choice itself, but with the availability of choice for all students. Taxpayer funding for schools should follow the students. Schools must comply with educational standards and must accept all who apply, within their capacity. Behavioral standards must apply to all who are accepted... regardless of the school they attend.
Tue, 09/20/2016 - 1:26pm
It would be desirable to see a quantitative analysis of the hypothesis that charter schools have increased racial segregation in Michigan. The evidence in this essay suggests that has happened but more evidence is needed. Are data available about the racial composition of students in each charter school? Thanks
Mike Wilkinson
Tue, 09/20/2016 - 6:47pm
Ren, Yes, demographic on all schools is available ( The percentage of African-Americans attending a charter school that is less than half white is 94 percent. That means for every 100 African American students in a charter school, 94 of them attend a majority-minority school, up from 90 percent six years ago. Part of it is the expansion of charters in Detroit, Flint and other cities but it's also parents and students choosing those settings for whatever reason (familiarity, location).
Tue, 09/20/2016 - 1:58pm
We parents feel that the best school with the best teachers is where we want our children to go regardless or in spite of any manufactured race issue. As evidence black parents in Detroit are choosing Charter Schools where there are better teachers who can be fired for poor performance as they don't have tenure or a union. So lets finally put that one to bed eh. Next school issue is Snyder's strategy to withhold money from Michigan's public schools in hope that they fail because of poor facilities, poor teaching tools and the many good teachers leaving to go the Charter School route. The lesser capable teachers won't take that Charter School risk because they would have to work harder and smarter plus they don't want to give up their locked in tenured job with benefits better than union auto workers. So those teachers are just trading water until they can retire in 20 to 30 years. Hardly a nice guy that republican nerd.
Kevin Grand
Tue, 09/20/2016 - 3:20pm
Here is my suggestion for Mr.Wilkinson: When you do your next piece, instead of jumping on the knee-jerk bandwagon of race being the underlying factor here, do a cross-reference across the state on how the level of police activity in a particular school system correlates in districts gaining and losing student population, along with student achievement on tests. Be sure to go back at least a decade and include factors like the number of visits/arrests by the local police/sheriff departments in and around schools, the number of calls for mutual aid in those circumstances, those districts with officers/deputies regularly assigned to a particular school (and those without) and those districts with their own police department (and those without). It should make for an interesting read.
david zeman
Tue, 09/20/2016 - 5:04pm
Kevin, This article doesn't say race is THE underlying factor, there are a number of factors that both this article and the one last week document, including the safety issues that you mention. What these articles are noting is that, whichever factor or factors are motivating these transfers, the result across much of the state are districts that are more segregated than they were previously. David Zeman Editor, Bridge
Thu, 09/22/2016 - 1:39am
Mr. Zeman, The article doesn’t say ‘race’ it is only title about ‘segregation’, it talks about ‘segregation’, the charts common data is by ‘race’, the article mentions more than once ‘race’ and how that is distributed in the schools, even suggests academic performance is related to ‘race’. The article may not use the word ‘race’, but do you think the readers [after generations of ‘race’ being in the fore front of education] don’t see ‘race’ as a theme in this article? You are correct the word race is not in the article, ‘segregation’ and ethnicity are a prime thread though the article. The writer didn’t seem to interview any students about why they do well or don’t do well, why they changed schools and what the differences were between the schools. A message can be sent even if certain words aren’t used. I wonder if you would be willing to survey the readers to get their impressions of whether ‘race’ was the message or not, even though the word ‘race’ wasn’t used? The non-use of ‘race’ reminds me of a President that was most concerned with what ‘is’ is when trying to obfuscate particular activities and motivations. I would really like to see this as the beginning of a series of article about the students and why they change or stay in their neighborhood school, why and how do they succeed academically or why not, how do their friends, peers, classroom have high or low academic expectations for themselves and those around them, how does the classroom environment affect learning or not, etc. I think there is much more beyond the ethnic ‘segregation’ focus of the article we can learn from the students moving or staying.
Mike Wilkinson
Tue, 09/20/2016 - 6:44pm
Kevin, I believe that is a broad generalization. Do you have numbers to back it up?
Kevin Grand
Tue, 09/20/2016 - 8:02pm
No, Mike, it is not a broad generalization. If you have read my earlier posts on related threads, I have already provided links on just some of what has been occurring in districts like East Detroit. If it was your intention to provide a thorough report on the migration patterns of Michigan Students, it only stands to reason that you explore all of the variables involved. Especially the safety of the schools. Unless you are trying to imply that a district like Armada (with no police presence within their schools) is significantly outperforming a district like Detroit Public Schools (with the state’s only full-service school district police agency) on just about every testing metric because of pure luck?
Wed, 09/21/2016 - 11:49am
Kevin, I have followed many of your comments and find them narrow in perspective. The mind always looks for information to support it's position, which I have seen you do many times. It takes an "open mind" to look at complex issues that require complex solutions.
Kevin Grand
Wed, 09/21/2016 - 2:19pm
Bernadette, if the information exists to support a position, it stands to reason that position is correct (even if it may be unpopular). I can just as easily claim my dog can talk, the moon is made out of green cheese and that laser discs are far superior to Blu-Ray. If I did not cite any sources and/or provide any links to substantiate those claims, that's just it, they're only statements and not fact.
Mary Jo Johnson
Tue, 09/20/2016 - 6:51pm
At a spring forum on the Detroit Public Schools held at Wayne State University Law School, four researchers, professors from WSU, MSU, and CMU presented findings that support the point of this article. They found that the 'effect of open enrollment has led to economic and racial stratification,' and expressed frustration that Michigan legislators made education decisions based on ideology rather than research. One suggested that what poor test scores really tell is where poor people live. They cited the decrease in student performance in the state since 2009 as well as a decreasing level of funding: Michigan's ranking in school funding is is now 25th (formerly 7th). As a society we need to make a commitment to educating everybody's children; we cannot afford a system that reinforces an underclass! All children deserve the fair shot at life and the development of their potential that a good education provides! Detroit's new Montessori schools are a positive sign and a much needed pre-school initiative! See James Heckman's (University of Chicago) research on the long term benefits of the development of cognitive and social skills in children from birth to age 5. Thanks to Bridge for exploring and publicizing these crucial education issues!
Fri, 09/23/2016 - 7:43pm
Ms. Johnson, Learning is from inside out, not your way of outside in. You talk about [economic and racial] stratification and imply it is based on what others have done/not done for the children, spent/not spent on education. Have you ever considered that learning requires effort of the person that is to be learning? What if learning is determined by the desire of the student to learn? What if that desire to learn is influenced by the model of their parents, the models of adults they are around, the models peers in their neighborhood/in their classroom? There is no doubt that what people don't do or how they do it can influence learning, but in reality if the student doesn't commit to learning, to doing all the homework and such, they will not learn no matter how well others have fulfilled their roles/responsibilities. Many experts claim that schools with disappointing results are in ‘poor’ neighborhoods, other experts claim that having a degree will elevate a person out of poverty, what if both are correct? Wouldn’t that suggest that in the poorer neighborhoods there is less likely people with degrees, people with a proven value for learning? If that is true then doesn’t it seem likely that those with degrees are more likely to encourage their children and others to learn, they could even be models of learning for their children and those in their neighborhoods. Rather than put all the energy into spending other people’s money, let’s start by working with the students to help them develop a desire for learning.
John Q. Public
Tue, 09/20/2016 - 9:28pm
When we chose to send our kids to a different district (with lower average standard test scores, FWIW) because there were far fewer acts of violence than in our "home" district, we went to a whiter district. Our home district had about 65% white 34% black, and 1% Asian students, and no exchange program. The choice district was 97% / 2% / 1% , but had excange students from more than two dozen different countries in the five years my kids spent there. So, which district was more diverse?
Thu, 09/29/2016 - 8:38am
Exchange students in our classrooms is just one side of the coin. We need to have more US students BEING exchange students themselves. How can we be teaching the concept of Global Citizenship, if we're not willing to leave our own borders?
Thu, 09/22/2016 - 1:23am
Do these numbers tell us anything about why the shifts in enrollment are happening or are they simply telling us a shift has occurred? Is the point of the article about children learning or is it about social engineering? There is mention of academic results, but are those results due to the schools or the students? Could it be that if the attendance shifts were reverses [those that changed became those that stayed and those that stayed changed] the performances would have reversed? What if performance is determined by expectations of the individual student’s and that drives learning? What if performance is affected by the classroom [students] learning expectations of each other? What if expectations are established by reports such as this that focus on who the students are and not on what they do and why? Those questions weren’t part of this article; will they be part of a later article? There is no doubt that the movement of students is occurring, but was the data influenced by the same rationale that was used to justify court ordered 'busing' from the metropolitan areas to the suburbs in the 1980s? It would be disappointing if the developers of this studying were influence by 30 year old thinking that failed to change performance and quality of schools. The shifting of students from one school to another maybe a symptom rather than a cause, and if it is could misdiagnosed be more harmful than can be repaired in a generation? What if the 'segregation' isn't ethnic as the article suggests, rather it is student learning expectations, would that affect the actions to be taken and the impact they might have? The article doesn't even hint at such a possibility. The reality is that children have to learn all that they know and do, what would this article teach them about?
Sat, 09/24/2016 - 3:08pm
I think it would be interesting to compare how many special needs students are being serviced at charter schools vs those remaining in public schools. I feel this is also a large area of segregation...
Sun, 09/25/2016 - 4:34am
School choice in Michigan for K - 12 is available only if you attend a public school. If a voucher program existed the money for education would go to the parent's school of choice that would include non-public schools. Then we could have a really genuine discussion of all of these issues. We would also have achieved truly free choice in education.
Chuck Jordan
Sun, 09/25/2016 - 10:44am
Michigan is already one of the most segregated states in the union. My previously home state of South Carolina is less segregated than Michigan. Why is that? Lots of reasons, but yes history, race, racism, crime and poverty etc. Every child has a right to a decent education and while I believe in choice (not vouchers which means taxpayer money going to support religion), we as a state and country can not afford to give up the ideal of an educational opportunity for every child.
Sun, 09/25/2016 - 3:44pm
Chuck, With that 'right' do the students have any responsibility for their results? I have sat in classroom where many students succeeded and I didn't, it wasn't because of the difference in anything except that I didn't do the homework, I chose to play not learn. Is that because of the school or me? I had the 'right' and the opportunity, but I didn't achieve the results. If I could waste such an opportunity then why can't others? We are providing the opportunity, but until we are willing to recognize and deal with the students role/responsibilities in their learning all the ranting, the money, the claims of segregation will not change the results. If any all of this hollering and belittling of others simply provides the students an excuse not to try. After high school I found an interest in learning and committed to learning marketable knowledge and skills. It required a few extra years, it require long hours/late nights, and that was when I learned it was about desire/persistence not about who your parents were nor about your talents. Was your academic success because of who your parents were, because of the school you attended, or did it have to do with the homework you did? When you took and algebra test was it about (a + b find c) or was it about your parent's financial status or their ethnicity? Is this article about right to go to school or the results students are gaining from going to school?
Mary Jo Johnson
Fri, 09/30/2016 - 10:44pm
Duane, you're right that students need to be motivated to learn, but a positive, stimulating learning environment is an essential part of motivation. I recently visited an area middle school that had no functioning library, certainly an important element in motivation. Look at research on learning theory and on the necessary stimulation of a child's brain from birth to age 5. Learning comes in steps and many children lack that essential foundation. Are we to give up on children whose parents lack the education, skills, resources, and time ( because they're working trying to survive?) to provide a solid foundation for their children? Also, I'm not suggesting 'spending other people's money,' rather that our public schools be equipped at least adequately to fulfill their obligation to children and to society.