School Choice and the Distribution of Students Across Districts

November 28, 2016


This week’s post is written by Ben Pogodzinski (Ph.D., Michigan State University).  Ben is an associate professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at Wayne State University. His current research focuses on the impact of school choice policies on the distribution of students and school funding, student absenteeism in urban schools, and the influence of teacher evaluation reform on teacher effectiveness ratings.


In Michigan, as in several states, government policies have to an extent eroded traditional residential boundaries which shaped the distribution of students across schools. For decades, district boundaries ensured that the student population in the local school district reflected the residential characteristics of the communities that they served. Efforts in the 1970s to desegregate certain school districts in Michigan (namely the Detroit Public Schools and neighboring districts) failed in the face of Milliken v. Bradley (1973) and now schools across Metro Detroit remain some of the most segregated in the country.

Policies designed to allow school choice have sought to challenge this paradigm and reduce the mechanisms which segregated students across communities. Specifically, the emergence of charter schools and inter-district school choice in a large sense reduced the residential barriers which defined the distribution of students by race/class. The true impact on the distribution of students through the exercise of choice though remains complicated. For example, researchers have demonstrated that in several states charter schools have a more segregated student population than neighboring traditional public schools (TPS).


Inter-District Choice in Metro Detroit

The impact of inter-district choice on the distribution of students on segregation is less clear. Students are certainly on the move in Michigan through inter-district choice (approximately 11 percent of students attend a TPS outside of their resident district). Looking at Detroit specifically, approximately 6 percent of Detroit children attend schools in neighboring traditional public school districts, and although they are spread across many districts in Metro Detroit they are largely concentrated in a handful of inner-ring suburban districts. Coupled with changes in residential patterns, the influx of Detroit children has made these districts more diverse in many respects. At the same time, it’s not clear whether this desegregation has resulted in a new “equilibrium” or rather this shift could be noted as an ongoing transition which eventually will re-establish school segregation patterns – the flow of students into a district may be fundamentally related to the flow of students out of a district.

As nonresident students from one community enter a school in a neighboring community it’s not exactly clear how resident families respond. In the 10 suburban districts that serve the largest numbers of Detroit children there is extensive exit of resident students through inter-district choice. For example, in 2014-15, nearly half of the students in Oak Park Schools were residents of Detroit, and approximately 40 percent Oak Park resident children attended school elsewhere. Additionally, in Harper Woods, nearly 30 percent of students were Detroit residents while approximately 40 percent of Harper Woods resident children attended school elsewhere.


Transitions by Race and Class

While there are likely many reasons for these patterns of entry and exit from a particular school system, issues of race and class related to parental decisions should not be ignored by researchers, practitioners, or policymakers. For these 10 districts, entering students were much more likely to be African American and economically disadvantaged while those exiting were more likely to be white and less economically disadvantaged (on average the student population in the schools was approximately 27 percent more African American than the resident population, 30 percent less white, and 45 percent more economically disadvantaged). While causal mechanisms in these patterns are nebulous, the reality that there are ongoing stark demographic shifts in these school districts is evident.

This leads to some important questions. Are these patterns of entry and exit likely to result in an “equilibrium” of a relatively diverse student population, or over time will students be further sorted out through choice mechanisms to the result of heavily segregated school systems? Additionally, what does this mean for the quality of education that students receive, particularly for lower income African American students seeking a higher quality of education in suburban districts? The answers to these questions have considerable implications for understanding the impact of choice policies and improving students’ access to an effective education.