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Schools of Choice Forum Draws Concerned Parents, Educators

Dozens of Grosse Pointe parents and educators turned out Wednesday for Rep. Tim Bledsoe's public forum on Gov. Rick Snyder's proposed 'Schools of Choice' mandate.

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. 

Kathy Abke July 14, 2011 at 01:33 PM
I attended this meeting and I thought it was informational & well presented. Without knowing exactly how Govenor Snyder will write his bill, it is impossible to get specific questions answered, such as how will class size be determined & whether the communtiy will continue funding our schools above and beyond state dollars. I was disappointed the meeting ended so abruptly, with someone yelling about segregration and then a mass exodus. I truly believe this desire to protect our good school systems is not about race -- but we do need to acknowlege there is fear involved. Fear of change, fear of the unknown, and fear about loss of control. And fears like these ARE reminiscent of the segregation era. I think we must acknowlege that. Racism still exists. Not addressing these concerns allows fear to continue. Talking about race should not be taboo. I honestly think, though, this is not about race. I welcome diversity. I also believe every child has the right to access quality education. It must, however, be the districts choice, and not the govenornments.
Kathy Abke July 14, 2011 at 01:33 PM
(continued...) I believe that many concerns are based on the fact that in increasing numbers, kids enter our district without familial support for their education. We know parental involvent changes EVERYTHING for a child on their educational journey. Will parents from out of district (perhaps living far away) be involved in their children's education? We simply cannot answer that in general terms. Some will, some won't. It makes a difference, and will be out of our control. How does a school guarentee parental or familial involvement? Also, how do we make up the $3000 difference between what the state providers per pupil, and what Grosse Pointe provides in addition? School of Choice can work for districts who are losing students. Is Grosse Pointe on of those districts? Our situation is truly unique. I shudder when I think how unprepared our new Superintendant of Schools is to deal with this impending change. One of the other candidates was MUCH more qualified to prepare our district for this change if it happens.
Bob Carr July 14, 2011 at 01:47 PM
I wish that I could have attended the forum. But, as many Patch readers know, Wednesday is the night that all the Pointes and St. Clair Shores hold their park swim club meets. Many parents were at their parks' events, demonstrating the involvement with their kids and their community that makes our schools great. I can only imagine how crowded Brownell might have been had they all been available! I find Mr. Van Beek's comment about Oxford School District interesting but misleading. Oxford is a fine district in northern Oakland and southern Lapeer counties which has chosen "open enrollment" and draws students to its programs by application. It does not take much imagination to see how the potential implications of this sort of program differ from "schools of choice," where choice is performed by lottery, enforced by legislative fiat, and draws students from a system which has been described by U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan as "the bottom of the barrel." Again, I wish I could have been there. It sounds like some folks were striving to demonstrate why public meetings are open but public schools should show more discretion!
Gemila Loper July 14, 2011 at 01:59 PM
I and many other parents really wanted to attend last night, however, it was swim meet night for all of the Pointes. As an African-American homeowner and proud resident, I am appalled by the comment that was made about "segregation". We have had nothing but good and positive experiences here. My husband and I chose to purchase a home in Grosse Pointe for the schools and the tight-knit community. We have great schools not only because of the dollars spent, but because of the parental involvement and support that is given. Schools are not a "babysitting service". Education is highly valued in our home- college is not an option- it is our minimal requirement and our kids know this. Our kids are not "better" than others- we just wanted them to have an educational experience with families who share our values. We are very much opposed to schools of choice for this reason.
Ian July 14, 2011 at 02:15 PM
Couldn't agree more. It is time that taxpayers of this community step up and get involved. As taxpayers and homeowners every one of us, regardless of whether or not we have children in the school system are affected by the decisions of certain school board members who have illustrated time and again that their priorities are not in line with the majority. One can only hope that a thorough investigation of Mr. Harwood's background will reveal that Mr. Harwood is in fact NOT the right candidate for Superintendant of Schools . It is important that people understand that what happens within our schools has a direct effect on our property values. The negative publicity that our school system has been receiving in the media the last couple years will continue as long as those creating the controversy stay in office. School of choice and the impending changes in how our children are educated require a qualified leader with experience. Let’s hope it’s not too late to find that leader.
Laila July 14, 2011 at 02:16 PM
This is not a racist argument, larger classes, less time for individual help in class. Teachers are overwhelmed trying to bring up the other kids to the level of our students which hinders everyone. They all deserve to be educated. How is it fair, our taxes pay for school systems and other kids are not contributing with their taxes if they come from another district. Is Snyder going to cover the difference!!!!!!
Lisa Belisle July 14, 2011 at 02:25 PM
As a former Grosse Pointe resident looking to return to the Pointes, I find the idea of open enrollment frightening. As already stated, this is not about race it is about the close ties between the Grosse Pointe schools and the families that has helped make the Grosse Pointe schools so strong. One only needs to look at the open enrollment experience of St. Clair Shores to see what the future may bring. If people want to go to great Grosse Pointe schools they should move there and be part of the community.
Chris K July 15, 2011 at 02:35 AM
I attended the forum and am still trying to understand why, when there is no legislation to respond or react to, the community was called to appear. To the extent this meeting will be covered by the metropolitan area press, all that will be accomplished is the opportunity for Grosse Pointe bashers to have more rocks to throw our way. This one with the word RACISTS painted on it. The conveners of this meeting did our community a great disservice while a couple of loons shouted antiquated terms to call those who attended elitists. I do not support the proposed proposal from Lansing and agree with many of the comments and observations that have been made in the Comments thus far, but I will add one more based upon the comments made thus far: If the Snyder proposal is to remedy excess capacity and that is remedied by reducing the number of schools open in Grosse Pointe and increasing class size in order to ensure that those who share our community values are in a learning community together, then why not do it?
Ranae Beyerlein, PhD July 15, 2011 at 03:54 AM
Mr. Walsh and Representative Bledsoe made some very valid points at the meeting, that the current legislative climate in Lansing, when taken in total, is about eroding local control of the schools and the communities in which we work and live. Grosse Pointers might do well to look more closely at the legislation in Lansing from that perspective and vote accordingly.
Melissa Currier July 15, 2011 at 12:53 PM
I am glad our community was given the opportunity to become informed about this proposed legislation. Perhaps voices from our community can be more proactive than reactive. Not much we can do after legislation passes. Now our voices can be heard in Lansing before the proposed legislation becomes a reality for our district. I sent my concerns to Snyder via e-mail yesterday. I urge others to do the same.
Kathy Abke July 16, 2011 at 02:47 PM
I am aware of this new Facebook group (Michigan Citizens Against School of Choice) and I would caution them to consider carefully their name and their argument. School of Choice (in my opinion) is not the enemy. School of Choice benefits children -- and I am a HUGE advocate of children. I do not believe School of Choice would be right for our community. If it does come to pass, it needs to be managed carefully (something I'm not sure the proposed new superintendent is up for.) Please be careful of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. School of Choice is not evil. It can help kids and districts. I just don't believe it will help OUR district. And that's really what I hear everyone is afraid of.
Rick July 19, 2011 at 07:20 PM
If the state is going to really do school of choice , why not vouchers and let the money go into the kids backpack wherever the family chooses to send it.... ahhh but that would be free market kinda stuff
Ranae Beyerlein, PhD July 19, 2011 at 09:20 PM
Sorry, RM, but public money should stay in the public sector. No private profit-making, nor private school subsidies from my tax dollars! The public schools are down nearly $500 per pupil for this year and again next year. Vouchers would take even more money out of public schools. Michisippi, here we come. That's race to the bottom in Tea Party parlance.
Rick July 20, 2011 at 11:22 AM
Ranae, Exactly my point. Let my tax dollars for my children go where I want them to and you yours. Perhaps a more efficient private school could use thise dollars more effectively. Perhaps I would have to spend more. You are making the presumption that more dollars spent equals better education, whereas many examples show that the coralation is just not there. We have a great school system and I am happy with it, but I would sure hate to be stuck in a system where private is the only option and I couldnt use ALL of MY hard earned dollars to give the best to MY children. That is common sense in Tea Party parlance!
Mike July 24, 2011 at 10:54 AM
You can't feel sorry for a wealthy school district that the state gives SO much more money than almost all others. How about we treat all all our students and districts the same with equal funding? Many districts in the area and state have to some how survive with $7,000 versus the $10,000 Grosse Pointe gets! Then Grosse Pointe complains about having to do what other districts do to try and supplement funding with schools of choice. Cry me a river.
Chris K July 24, 2011 at 01:18 PM
Hmmh. I just read that the Detroit schools spent $15, 570 per student in fiscal year 2010. That is the "area" Federal tax dollars spent on education is real money too. Ours! http://detroit2020.com/2011/06/21/comparing-school-district-spending/
Kathy Abke July 25, 2011 at 01:20 AM
Mike - the state gives the same amount to every student in every district (just over $7000.) The community makes up the difference. Or doesn't. People in Grosse Pointe and Harper Woods pay for that extra $3000 per student. I know this is a heated argument, but please know the state does not show preference to students from any city.
Gemila Loper July 26, 2011 at 05:35 AM
Mike, Why would you think that Grosse Pointe (or any other district for that matter) would just "get" more money? As taxpayers, we have voted for millages over the years to pay the extra $3000. In essence, we tax ourselves to support our public schools. Personally, I would pay even more if it would help to keep class sizes at/under 25 and retain many of our great teachers.

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