Choice, local control at odds in Michigan schools

By Tim Martin

Associated Press

LANSING (AP) -- Gov. Rick Snyder's plans to expand educational choice in Michigan are opposed in some communities worried about losing control over their school districts.

Wide-ranging proposals expected to be introduced in the state Legislature next month will include a requirement for all public school districts to participate in Michigan's schools of choice program, which allows students to enroll in schools outside of the districts where they live.

The program currently is voluntary. About 18 percent of the state's 551 traditional school districts don't allow non-resident students to enroll and many others have significant restrictions based on grade of entry or other factors. That would change if the Republican-led Legislature makes the choice program mandatory and imposes uniform rules for how it's run across the state.

Supporters say a mandatory choice program would be another tool to help families living in poor-performing school districts find better academic options.

"We have to expand choice to empower parents to make sure they get the very best education for their kids," said Sen. Phil Pavlov, a Republican from St. Clair and chairman of the Senate Education Committee. "That's the intent of this legislation."

The developing legislation also would allow more charter schools, expand dual enrollment options and provide more online learning opportunities for Michigan students.

But the proposal sparking the most debate is the mandatory schools of choice plan. If districts have the capacity to handle more students after all of their own residents are enrolled, they would be required to open their doors to non-residents.

Critics say the plan is part of an escalating attempt to undermine Michigan's tradition of local control over community school districts.

The state changed its school finance system in the 1990s in part to try to make funding more uniform from community to community, making it tougher for some wealthy districts to raise money for schools. Statewide graduation requirements began with the Class of 2011, ending an era where local school boards set their own criteria. Lawmakers this year expanded the powers of state-appointed emergency financial managers placed in some districts and voted to require that schools cap their expenditures on employee health insurance coverage.

The Grosse Pointe school district in suburban Detroit, one of the state's best and wealthiest, doesn't participate in the state schools of choice program. The district's school board recently passed a resolution saying it doesn't support the Snyder plan to make the program mandatory.

"My personal point of view is when you take away local control of education, you essentially steal a community's destiny," board president John Steininger said.

State Rep. Timothy Bledsoe, a Democrat from Grosse Pointe, said he's worried that a mandatory schools of choice program would be the "death blow" to local control of schools.

"If your school board cannot control its boundaries and who is allowed to attend your schools, there just isn't much left that Lansing can't determine," Bledsoe said. "The school board is left to hire and fire the superintendent and that's about it."

A new group including parents and school board members, called Michigan Communities for Local Control, has been formed to contest the proposed mandatory changes. Lynn Jacobs, a parent of two children in the Grosse Pointe district, says the group isn't opposed to the schools of choice program but believes districts should have the right to determine whether and how they participate.

"We just believe individual districts should continue to have flexibility and not be constricted by the dictates of Lansing," Jacobs said.

Some supporters of a mandatory plan suspect local control isn't the primary motivating factor for some opponents. Districts lose state aid money for every student who leaves, further hurting schools facing financial difficulty. Other districts may not want to deal with students from poorer-performing districts located nearby.

During a special message to the Legislature on education in April, Snyder said residents of a local district should continue to have the first opportunity to enroll, but districts with room shouldn't be allowed to refuse out-of-district students.

"Providing open access to a quality education without boundaries is essential," Snyder said in his message. "By introducing an education system that offers unfettered flexibility and adaptability for student learning models and styles, we will break down the status quo on how, when and where students learn."

Published: Wed, Aug 31, 2011