An air of unrest and frustration filled the multipurpose room of on Wednesday as about 150 people gathered to learn about the governor's proposed 'Schools of Choice' plan.
Although there was a question-and-answer session, many of the audience's questions were difficult to answer because an actual draft of the bill outlining the program as a statewide mandate has not yet surfaced, said State Rep. Tim Bledsoe.
Bledsoe opened by telling those in the audience that he is opposed to the program for . His forum featured Michael Van Beek, the director of education policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, and Grosse Pointe School board member Brendan Walsh.
Walsh also opened his statements by saying he is against the program as well but said it is necessary for the community to prepare for the proposed mandate to become a reality. Snyder, Walsh said, has pretty much gotten everything he wanted since taking office.
Each of the presenters provided some background on school funding as well as the current optional schools of choice program that some districts have used as a tool to grow enrollment and programming.
The Schools of Choice program is currently an option for any district, and all public districts must vote about whether they will participate. The Grosse Pointe School System has opted out of the program as long as its been an option.
The current program allows for students to attend any participating school with vacancies regardless of their school district. In-district students are given priority enrollment and out-of-district students then fill in vacancies until the school reaches capacity.
The capacity is truly the defining issue, Walsh said after the session.
Without a draft of the bill for the proposal, which Snyder announced in April, the panel could not provide exact answers for many of the audience's questions. Currently, school districts define their own capacity—a decision that allows them to maintain control over class size.
Bledsoe said he expects the bill to contain language addressing capacity requirements. "If they are serious about this, they know they cannot let local schools have control," he said.
Wals suggested that those who oppose schools of choice use the loss of local control argument, saying this is one more way in which control is likely to be stripped from local officials.
The audience asked a variety of questions with a heavy focus on how such a program would affect the in-district students as compared to the out-of-district students. Parents wanted to know the effects both in the classroom and in connection with extracurricular activities.
Parents also inquired about funding, whether the district could charge for the difference between the state minimum funding and the per pupil spending. In Grosse Pointe, per-pupil spending is close to $10,000.
Parents also inquired about the capacity of Grosse Pointe Schools, scoffing at Van Beek's answer about how the capacity can't be determined without a formula that is likely to be spelled out in a bill. Walsh explained that he would argue the district has zero capacity because it organizes the budget based on enrollment and full-time teachers. This answer earned Walsh some applause.
Despite an outburst by a man and a woman accusing Grosse Pointers of wanting segregation specifically from Detroit students, Walsh said afterward the real concern in the Pointes is class size.
Masses of the audience stood and began exiting the room as the man and woman continued yelling about how Grosse Pointers think their children are better than Detroit children and are sugarcoating their real concern. The audience also made a quick exit after Bledsoe began wrapping up the forum.
Bledsoe said a rumor has been circulating the capitol that a draft of the bill has been written, but it is not being shared openly. He believes the bill could surface soon, but really doesn't have a gauge about where the governor is in the process.
Either way, Bledsoe and Walsh agreed the district will not have to adopt a schools-of-choice program for the upcoming school year as there is not enough time to move such major legislation through for passage.
During the hour-long forum, Van Beek highlighted some of the positive sides of schools of choice. Some districts have used it to attract students. Among the benefits, according to Van Beek:
- Funding—the minimum $7,000 state issued funds follows the student, not the school, and adding one student to an already existing class doesn't cost the same amount.
- It's an incentive for school districts losing students to improve.
- Students can pick the school/district that best meets their needs.
Oxford School District in northern Oakland County has been one district that has made the most of using schools of choice, Van Beek said. The district opted into it, began upping its enrollment when most were losing students, and added more foreign language and arts. The schools also eliminated pay-to-play and admissions for events. The district also has partnered with four schools in China for an extended schools-of-choice experience.