A Look at Michigan’s Schools of Choice: What Do We Know, And What Do We Need to Learn?

April 6, 2016

Joshua M. Cowen is an Associate Professor of Education Policy in the College of Education at Michigan State University. He studies school choice, teacher quality, and school accountability.

By Joshua M. Cowenjoshua cowen

What are “Schools of Choice?” In Michigan, the technical answer to that question is that Schools of Choice (SoC) is actually a system of arrangements made by Michigan school districts to enroll students from other districts nearby. More generally, a school of choice could be a charter school, or even a private school, and as someone who has studied schools of choice, the between-district enrollment system. There are a few things we are beginning to understand about that program specifically, although we have much more to learn. As I’m going to explain further below, we know who tends to participate in SoC, and whether there appear to be differences in student achievement between those who do and do not participate. But other features of SoC still need more attention, and these are perhaps more important than what we’ve learned so far. These questions include a better understanding of the fiscal impacts of SoC, whether parents who make use of the system can or should stay in for the long term, and how district-specific rules influence the program’s operation and success.

But let’s start with some basics. By design, Michigan districts participating in SoC formally make their own rules for doing so. These rules include the application process each family goes through, limits on enrollment numbers, which schools within the district non-resident children attend, and which grades or other academic programs are available. Technically, there are even two ways districts can operate a SoC arrangement: one, outlined by Section 105 of the State School Aid Act, through which districts can simply enroll students from other districts with the same larger intermediate school district (ISD). The other, outlined by Section 105c of the act, allows districts to enroll students from nearby ISDs. Which of these two paths districts choose is also up to them. What’s more, districts can participate in the state’s broad SoC system, but can also make local agreements with other districts to send or receive students. What all of this means is that there really isn’t one “Schools of Choice” program but as many different programs as there are districts participating.

It can get confusing, not just for parents but even reporters and decision-makers focused on school policy in our state. Chances are though, if you are reading this and you’ve enrolled your child in a public school district other than where you live—or you know or have talked to someone who has—that’s happened through SoC. And while I’ll get back to the idea of local, district-by-district differences below, it’s still reasonable to ask: what do we know about “Schools of Choice” as a statewide public program?

Well, as I often argue when it comes to any choice program, it depends on what we ask. Two of the most common questions that researchers raise about these kinds of policies are “who chooses?” and “what are the results?” Last summer my research team and I released a report answering the first question. In follow-up analyses this past fall and winter, we looked at the second. From this work we know a number of things about SoC that we didn’t before.

Who Chooses?

Our research team analyzed student-level data collected between the 2005-06 and 2012-13 school years. We focused primarily on students who transferred from their home district to another nearby via the SoC system in a given year (rather than on those who had been in the program for several years). This allowed us to make some statements about the academic conditions they were leaving. In particular, we were able to gauge how well students were doing on the state’s MEAP math and reading exams relative to their peers in their home districts before they left. That’s important, because it’s one way to determine whether SoC serves primarily advantaged or disadvantaged students. Other measures—students’ race, income, or learning needs—provide different ways of addressing that question.

Overall, we found that, after a given year, students who leave their home districts under SoC tended to be lower scoring on math and reading tests, compared to their peers who stayed behind in the same grade and year. They were also more likely to be African American and have lower family income (more likely to be eligible for free/reduced price lunch programs). So on the one hand, statewide, it’s apparent that the program does not disproportionately draw from historically advantaged populations of students. On the other hand, those statewide patterns don’t hold for every district. In districts with the lowest levels of math and reading scores, and those with the highest percentages of African American students and free/reduced price lunch participants, it was actually the more advantaged students who were leaving. This was especially true for student level test scores: higher performing students, and white students were more likely to leave struggling districts.

But to me, that’s not the most important part of the story. As I’ve written in national outlets, when we ask “who chooses” a school choice program, we really need to be asking “who stays” in these programs as well. And that’s what we did in Michigan. We found that the same relatively disadvantaged students (again, as measured by race, income, and test scores) who were more likely to leave their home districts were also more likely to leave their new districts as well. And the majority of students, regardless of demographics or academic background, who used SoC, did not do so over the long term. In fact, we tracked three cohorts of kindergartners who began elementary school in SoC, and found that only about 40 percent stayed in SoC all the way through 5th grade. For African Americans that number was even lower: only 28 percent used the program for all six elementary school years.

What Are the Effects?

As a policy analyst, I expect questions about a program’s performance. In education, we tend to measure performance with test scores, but also other indicators like graduation rates. As we looked at SoC, our team was hesitant to make too much of test score differences between those who used and did not use the program, (we were not able to look at graduation rates), because there are very clear guidelines that we follow as social scientists when we make those kinds of comparisons. The best studies of school choice analyze data from lotteries that assign kids to schools or programs from waiting lists. This is because lotteries mimic a random assignment process that allows researchers to attribute any differences in outcomes (be they test scores or something else) to that school or program itself. In other words, in those studies, we can be sure that things we can’t measure about a student—her family background apart from race or income, for example, or her ambition or work ethic—aren’t also driving differences.

Although some districts in Michigan use lotteries to assign kids to SoC when they have more applicants than spots in their schools, our team did not have lottery information. So instead we had to apply some advanced statistical techniques to adjust test score differences between SoC transfers and non-transfers in the hopes of creating a range of values between which we could be reasonably expect the true “effect” of participating in SoC lies.

What we found in that analysis was there is likely no discernible difference in math or reading test scores between kids who transfer using SoC and those who remain in their home districts. There is some evidence that those who transfer into districts with the highest aggregate test scores score slightly higher after doing so, but for the most part switching into a nearby district via SoC does not appear to affect a child’s test score, on average, one way or the other.

At first glance, those findings may disappoint supporters of SoC and, similarly, encourage the program’s skeptics. After all, SoC is a complicated system of district and family decision-making. Student participation rates have significant effects on district budgets. Doesn’t the possibility that students who use SoC realize no significant test score benefits after doing so invalidate the motivation to have such a system in the first place?

Our research isn’t intended to defend or oppose SoC, but rather to learn more about the way the program operates. I will say that as an expert in school choice policy, I would caution against reading too much into the test score results I just described. I’ve seen some choice programs in other states with very negative impacts, and others with very large positive impacts. A program like SoC, that seems to be in the middle of those two extremes, shouldn’t be that surprising. More importantly, researchers, policymakers, and parents alike are increasingly looking to outcomes beyond test scores to weigh the success of school choice programs. I mentioned graduation rates, but other outcomes—student and parent happiness perhaps chief among them—are relevant too. SoC does not appear to be hurting achievement, overall, so it’s reasonable to consider other ways of measuring its success.

What’s Next to Know?

Which brings me to the question: what do we have to learn? First and foremost, we need to know much more about the fiscal impact of SoC on district finances. We already know—as leaders in many districts will say—that with this kind of system there are budget winners and losers. Some districts gain students, others lose them, and when districts have relatively fixed costs (buildings, transportation, and to some extent salaries) wide swings in enrollment year to year can wreak havoc on the ability to plan. This might be especially the case here in Michigan where, as I have explained, it appears that for many if not most students, participation in SoC is only temporary.

There are reasons why that kind of “revolving door” might be a good thing for some people. For example, the program may allow parents flexibility to deal with changing job locations or other economic circumstances even if they don’t move out of their homes. But if the idea behind the program is to provide a stable, long-term public school alternative, it’s not at all clear that’s what’s happening. Either way, we need to know more about why parents decide to use SoC, and why so many students leave again after transferring.

Finally, we need to pay special attention to the rules that different districts put in place to govern their SoC decisions. With this kind of a system, some degree of local control over these rules is necessary—school boards and superintendents need the flexibility to set guidelines based on the particular needs of their schools—but as with any policy in education where so much depends on individual district discretion, it’s important to make sure that these decisions do not exacerbate inequality between schools and students. If the research I’m describing here tells us anything concrete, it’s that race, income, and academic ability are all in some way related to who uses and who stays in SoC. And these factors matter not only for individual students, but in the aggregate at the district level, as they appear to also determine at least in part which districts students leave.

None of these open questions imply that the program as it exists now is good or bad for public education in Michigan. There are almost certainly some positives and some negatives, just as with any public policy, and as researchers we try to help disentangle the two so that policymakers, parents, and citizens can set priorities. I will say that it’s probably time for the state to revisit key aspects of Schools of Choice at some point in the near future, and I’ve tried to suggest here some of the particular things that the state should ask.