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Who's opting in and opting out of Michigan's "schools of choice"

Steve Carmody
Michigan Radio

A new study shows African-American, poor and academically weak students tend to be the ones opting for Michigan’s "schools of choice" program.

In 1994, Michigan began allowing school districts to enroll students from outside their borders. Since then, tens of thousands of Michigan school children have opted out of their local public schools. More than 200,000 students now attend "schools of choice" or charter schools.

Michigan State University researchers wanted to know who these students are.

Joshua Cowen is an associate professor of education policy at MSU. 

He says participation in "schools of choice" rose by 42% between 2005 and 2013, even as Michigan’s overall K-12 student population declined.

By 2013, 7.1% of Michigan school children were enrolled at "schools of choice" schools. But Cowen says enrolling and staying are two different things.

Cowen says the same students more likely to opt for schools of choice were also the same group that tended to leave before graduating. 

MSU researchers focused on kindergarten through fifth grade students. Cowen says they found fewer than a third of the African-American students who started at "schools of choice" in kindergarten stayed in that school through to middle school. The overall number was slightly less than 40%

“I don’t view this as any kind of indictment of this program,” says Cowen. “One could see it that way or one could say ‘this is just parental choice.' Parents move and then they decide they want something different and they move again.”

But moving from one school to another may not be best for the student

Cowen says the disruption of moving, even to a better school, tends to hurt academically weak students.    

The MSU study is funded by the Walton Family Foundation and the U.S. Department of Education.  

Steve Carmody has been a reporter for Michigan Public since 2005. Steve previously worked at public radio and television stations in Florida, Oklahoma and Kentucky, and also has extensive experience in commercial broadcasting.
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