LANSING - Gov. Rick Snyder wants to greatly expand Michigan's schools of choice law, but the proposal is generating some opposition.
If K-12 public school students don't like the district they live in, Michigan's schools of choice law allows them to enroll in another one. They take their state funding with them. The program was started by former Gov. John Engler, in the belief that making school districts compete for students - and the funding that comes along with them - would force them to improve.
Currently districts don't have to participate, though most do. And students are basically limited to enrolling in nearby districts.
Snyder said the legislation will make all districts take part in the program, and allow any student to attend classes in any district in the state. School districts would have to accept out-of-district students until they reach their capacity.
"Providing open access to a quality education without boundaries is essential," Snyder told the Legislature back in April. He said it was part of his "Any Time, Any Place, Any Way, Any Pace" proposal for the schools.
This is just one of a number of the governor's proposals aimed at improving schools, said Snyder press secretary Sara Wurfel
"The governor's viewpoint is that a choice shouldn't be limited simply because of where one lives - whether by ZIP code, city/county or where the (intermediate school district) line may happen to fall," Wurfel said. "There's also the issue that some school districts only participate at a certain level - elementary, middle or high. Providing open access to a quality education without boundaries is essential."
The expanded schools of choice proposal will be included in a package of bills to be introduced in early September by state Sen. Phil Pavlov, R-St. Clair, Wurfel said.
Hold on, says Peter Spadafore, assistant director of government relations for the Michigan Association of School Boards. Snyder is proposing "a solution in search of a problem," and the state has no business forcing schools to take part in schools of choice, he said.
"We view this as a local decision," Spadafore said. "The board makes a decision to open its borders, based on their desire and ability to educate students outside of their borders. We in no way oppose schools schools of choice. We oppose mandating that a district must participate in schools of choice."
Most districts already participate in schools of choice, according to Spadafore.
"We have 453 districts participating in 'choice,' out of 551 districts," Spadafore said. "This is a very small percentage of our districts that are not participating in choice, because their boards and communities have opted out."
Those districts that have chosen not to take part have reasons for not participating, and the state should respect those reasons, Spadafore said.
Some local school superintendents don't much care for Snyder's proposal, either.
"I think it's another step toward total state control of public education," said Allen Skibbe, superintendent of St. Joseph Public Schools. "Local control is being diminished with every one of these new proposals … All these laws erode local control."
Skibbe said if mandatory schools of choice is enacted, it probably wouldn't have "a major impact" on St. Joseph or other Southwest Michigan schools.
"We currently try to fill the seats in our classrooms each year, and to try maintain some stability in our enrollment," Skibbe said. "Right now we are going to be getting close to 280 schools of choice students in St. Joseph this year in grades K-12."
The district has about 2,840 students in grades K-12.
Mark Bielang, superintendent of Paw Paw Public Schools, agreed that it doesn't seem Snyder's proposal would have much effect on Southwest Michigan.
"I don't think it's going to be a huge impact for schools that are similar to us, from a demographic or geographic standpoint," Bielang said. "I think it's going to affect the schools on the east side of the state much more, with their proximity to each other. Some are geographically very small in size, just a handful of square miles in size. But some districts around here are 600 square miles, so transportation would be a much bigger issue."
There is, however, one big caveat that could turn the governor's proposal into something that could be a huge concern for local schools, Bielang said. It depends on the definition of "capacity," he said.
Snyder's proposal wouldn't have a big effect "as long as we are allowed to determine how many slots are available," Bielang said.
"But the next possible extension of this is that the state will come up with some sort of formula we'll have to follow, how many students in each classroom and so forth. That level of control still needs to stay with local districts."
Wurfel said Snyder " is not about forcing schools of choice, but simply advocating that if schools districts and schools have openings - and it would be up to them to decide if they do - they should open up to everyone."
The political watch
State Sen. John Proos, R-St. Joseph, said he needs to hear more about Snyder's proposal before making up his mind.
"The discussions are just now beginning on the next phase of reform," Proos said. "I haven't seen any proposals, but the chairman of the Education Committee is interested in holding hearings in the first couple of weeks in September, an introduction of language to give us a starting point."
Proos said he approves of Snyder's education agenda so far.
"I think the issue of school reform and a continuing focus on student achievement is a hallmark of Snyder's administration," Proos said. "The Legislature for the most part has tried to find ways to coordinate with the governor in order to find ways to improve student achievement."
Businesses and industries are "relying on the product we have in our school districts," Proos said.
State Rep. Al Pscholka, R-St. Joseph, said he'll listen to what Snyder has to say. "I think every governor comes in with a big reform agenda of education and some great ideas, and I'm willing to look at them," he said.
But Pscholka has some concerns that officials may be misdiagnosing the problem.
"What I hope we don't lose sight of is that learning actually begins at the front door of the house, not the front door of the school house," Pscholka said. "We have to realize that issues involving education aren't all in the classroom. They begin at home with parents."
The data make that clear, Pscholka said.
"When you look at some of the data from different districts, where you have parental support and community support, you've got great schools," Pscholka said. "Where you don't have it, you don't have great schools."
Pscholka said he's been mentoring students in the Benton Harbor district for 15 years. He said he's seen firsthand how students' problems at home negatively affect their education.
"I think we really need to realize that issues in the classroom don't all start in the classroom," Pscholka said. "They start in the home … One of the things we need to talk about is parental involvement. Great teachers are great, but they don't replace great parents."
If Snyder's idea does become law, "it's going to create an environment with unpredictable student populations," Spadafore said.
There will be other serious problems as well, Spadafore predicted. Snyder's proposal would force districts to accept outside students up to their student capacity, but capacity "is much more than a real estate term," he said.
"It doesn't just mean 'x' number of students per classroom," Spadafore said. "Do we have enough staffing for those students? Do we have the services for remediation? Do we have the dollars for specialized services? How about special education dollars? All of those things have to be included in understanding the capacity for our school buildings."
Snyder's proposal is aimed more at the Detroit area, at "forcing some suburban schools to take on students from the greater Detroit schools," St. Joseph's Skibbe said.
A recent Detroit Free Press article agreed with that, saying there is major opposition to the plan in the Grosse Pointe school district. It's one of the wealthiest and top-performing districts in the state, and it does not take part in the schools of choice program.
The district's school board and the Grosse Pointe Woods City Council have passed resolutions opposing Snyder's proposal, and there is now a Michigan Communities for Local Control, based in Grosse Pointe Woods, working on building the opposition.
Spadafore said the governor's idea, if enacted, would allow some Detroit students to attend neighboring school districts. And for Detroit students who could not leave, that would make an already dire situation even worse, he said.
"What about those students who are left behind?" Spadafore posed. "They are left behind in a Detroit school system that has the perception that it is failing and will have fewer resources. It will leave behind the students who are the most vulnerable and who will have the most to lose in being left behind."
Some pundits say the affected suburban districts around Detroit will see much worse problems if the governor's plan becomes law. Student performance in those districts will see an inevitable decline, possibly lowering those districts' state funding and subjecting them to penalties.
Wurfel denied that the districts around Detroit are being targeted. "The schools that don't participate in schools of choice are located across the state, in every geographic region, from the Upper Peninsula to Southeast Michigan," she said.
Some even think it's an attack on public schools themselves. Snyder's proposals would also increase the number of charter schools in Michigan.
Also, some say there's little if any evidence that the existing schools of choice program has resulted in any improvements. If that's so, why expand it?
"There are so many variables that it's likely impossible to be 100 percent quantitative on this front," Wurfel conceded. "That said, there's a variety of research that does point to at least modest academic and graduate rate gains."
The current schools of choice law isn't perfect, Spadafore said, but it's better than its proposed replacement.
"We do not support the governor's proposal," Spadafore said. "Although we do have some reservations with the way the law is currently set up, we should leave it the way it is rather than do that which the governor suggests."
Paw Paw's Bielang said such new proposals require a lot of thought.
"The devil is in the details, and there will be some unintended consequences here that haven't been thought through," he said. "Before this open-doors policy is complete, we need to ask what is the problem that needs to be solved here, and does it apply to all districts."