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MSU study looks at Michigan students and schools of choice

Recently arrived refugees in Michigan learn english and job training in the same course
flickr user Steven Depolo

In 1994, Michigan opened the door to schools of choice. It permitted school districts to welcome students from other districts.

Some two decades later, more than 80% of districts are now enrolling school-of-choice students.

100,000 K-12 students are going to school outside their home districts.

Michigan State University researcher Joshua Cowen is the lead author on a first-of-its-kind study exploring how school choice is working for students.

The study is still ongoing according to Cowen, and over the last year they’ve accomplished the first of their three goals with the study by completing a demographic profile of the kids who choose to leave their school districts under school-of-choice.

“Our first question here was just who are these kids, where are they going, and how long do they stay?” Cowen says.

Cowen tells us that they looked at eight years’ worth of data on Michigan’s student population.

He says the results presented are on a statewide scale, and “things could be a little different in individual districts’ circumstances, and are.”

Keeping that in mind, Cowen tells us that students who choose opt out of their home district under school choice tend to be African-American, qualify for free or reduced lunch, and “are lower-performing on [the Michigan Educational Assessment Program test], especially in math, relative to their peers in the same district.”

As for how long these students stay with these schools, Cowen calls it “a very dynamic program.”

He says kids come and go quite a bit, and though overall participation in the schools-of-choice program has risen in the last decade, they consistently see trends of kids going to a school for a few years and then leaving.

“Only about 40% of kids overall stay in schools of choice all the way from K through five,” Cowen says. That number falls to around 29% for African American students in the same range.

Cowen tells us the data sugges any number of factors could contribute to this attendance churn, but at this point, “part of the answer I think  probably lies in what your perspective on this type of program is in the first place.”

On one hand, Cowen says the school-of-choice program can be seen as a way to give kids a long-term academic home outside of their neighborhood.

But if that’s the case, “then something’s not working right,” he says, “because they’re not coming in and staying for a long time.”

On the other hand, he tells us the program could be thought of as a policy put in place to give parents the flexibility to move their kids around based on their specific academic needs or other family circumstances.

“So we really don’t know and there could be a number of different explanations,” Cowen says, “and again it really just sort of depends on how you view the program’s purpose.”

Cowen says as the study continues they will examine what happens to students who enroll in schools of choice in terms of academic achievement, and will later complete a profile of the schools and districts receiving students through the program.

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