Blowing up boundaries in Michigan

Adam Emerson

It’s taken a Republican governor in Michigan to propose what the Democratic Party could not. Rick Snyder wants to lead the way to a truly public school system, one that recognizes no artificial boundaries and doesn’t care whether you’re rich enough to buy a home near the best school.

In a plan he unveiled yesterday, Snyder would have all Michigan districts open their doors to students, no matter their residence, as long as there are empty chairs. And in Michigan’s current economy, there are not many schools running at capacity.

For the past 20 years, the state has allowed families to cross district lines, but it was always left to school systems to decide whether to accept out-of-district students. While many schools were happy to take the students, and the money that came with them, too many others turned children away for the wrong reasons.  

When I covered schools in Lansing, Mich., as a reporter, one of the more compelling narratives to watch unfold was the migration of hundreds of students from inner-city schools to suburban schools. Poor black families residing in the Lansing School District could leave the system to attend the same schools in East Lansing, Holt and Okemos to which wealthier families sent their children. As time passed, however, this law proved more theoretical than practical. One suburban district, for instance, reported too many “discipline” problems, and families who paid property taxes there complained. The result, in that case, had closed what was the most open of open enrollment policies.

One retired school administrator told the Detroit Free Press that he encountered the same resistance from families when he served as interim superintendent of the suburban Detroit district of Madison Heights. For two months, John Telford opened his district’s doors to what was in 2009 a “flood” of students leaving Detroit Public Schools, but his move created too much tension and he ended up resigning.

Racism was “certainly a factor” in that tension, Telford told the Free Press.

So Snyder’s move could be regarded as a radical and, frankly, liberal step toward a system in which the money, indeed, follows the child in a way that doesn’t negatively impact the collective spreadsheet of Michigan’s public schools. Snyder might be approaching this from the controversial position that unencumbered school choice would improve public schools by free-market means, but realistically the people who will complain the most are those who had the wealth to buy their way into the best schools.

One mother in an affluent Detroit suburb told the Wall Street Journal she’s opposed to Snyder’s plan since “we are paying higher taxes because we chose  Bloomfield schools.” More disturbing is the perspective of the superintendent in the wealthy Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills, who told the Free Press that residents in his district are paying “extra taxes to provide extra levels of education to their local community. To make that same option available to others who have not made that sacrifice or that choice to invest doesn’t seem fair.”

Fortunately, the governor is not so tone deaf to the academic needs of struggling low-income children, and it is notable that a fiscal and social conservative has recognized that poor families can’t make the same “choice to invest” in the toniest suburbs. It’s now up to the Legislature to awaken to that fact as well.

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Jessica August 30, 2011 - 3:44 pm

As a resident of a school district that does not offer open enrollment, I am 100% against this proposal. There are few high-performing public schools in my area. I chose to buy a home where I did because of the good schools. I could have got more house for my money elsewhere, with a smaller tax bill.

My daughter’s school has small class sizes, wonderful teachers, and individualized attention to each student. The children, for the most part, come from home where the parents are professionals & value education. My concern is that parents who do not share these values will still take advantage of our schools. The problems of the Detroit public schools will become our problems. This will cause the learning environment to be compromised. All one has to do is look around at other “schools of choice” and see that they are now failing schools. Locals pulled their kids out, as out-of-district kids took over the schools. It’s sad but you should not have to leave your neighborhood that you work so hard to afford in order to find a good schools
for you kids.

Transfering low-performing kids to different schools does not change them (especially if they don’t care about education), it changes the schools they attend. It’s not what people want to hear, but it’s true.

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