Fight Flight

Detroit Schools

The paradox of education is precisely this—that as one begins to become conscious, one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated. —James Baldwin

MLive ran a story yesterday about the Ann Arbor Public School District’s “Schools of Choice” program. There are moments in the piece that deserve underscoring and some fast exegesis.

Ann Arbor School Board OKs 750 Schools of Choice Seats for 2017–18

After wrestling with the financial and regional implications of accepting Schools of Choice students, Ann Arbor Public Schools trustees decided to accept as many as 750 students who live outside the district for the 2017–18 school year.

Can we throw a quick punch at the euphemism “Schools of Choice”? It reminds us of the phrase “Right to Work,” itself a euphemism for unionbusting. What processes are camouflaged by the phrase “Schools of Choice”? White Flight, and also competition among public school districts.

The board of education voted 6–1 on Wednesday, March 29 to continue the same Schools of Choice policy the district has adopted in recent years. AAPS received 670 Schools of Choice applications for the 2016–17 school year and ended up enrolling 445 new Schools of Choice students this school year, putting the total number of AAPS students who live outside the district at 1,301, according to a report from Superintendent Jeanice Swift.

Board secretary Jeff Gaynor opposed the Schools of Choice proposal, citing several reasons he believes school choice ultimately creates damaging competition between schools at the expense of acting in the best interest of students in all public schools.

Thank you, Jeff Gaynor. We’d grown accustomed to the snowballing of everyone’s passive approval of school choice, as if it were self-evident, acceptable, ethical.

Gaynor laid out his thoughts on the pros and cons of Schools of Choice for various stakeholders in a 1,540-word statement prepared in advance, which he read aloud Wednesday.

“In summary, I feel we are facing a decision when we decide between a ‘me-first’ competitive approach, with winners and losers, or a more equitable and cooperative system in which the public good is the primary goal,” Gaynor read. “While I expect that I am voicing a minority view here tonight, and will certainly accept the vote of the majority of the Board, I do feel it is important to examine these complex issues in a complete and objective manner, fully cognizant of the consequences of our policies.”

“… or a more equitable and cooperative system in which the public good is the primary goal.” Hear, hear! But take care, Jeff—one also hears the sound of knives being sharpened.

Board parliamentarian Simone Lightfoot said she wished she had more time ahead of the meeting to formulate a response to Gaynor’s statement and board vice president Susan Baskett agreed, before pushing back on some of his assertions.

One thing Baskett took issue with was Gaynor’s comment that “some of the data released by the administration is slanted to make the district’s case.” She said his saying Schools of Choice contributed to “white flight” also sent a “bad signal” to her. Reports show school choice is a factor in exacerbating school segregation.

White Flight does send a bad signal. That’s why committed anti-racists, anti-capitalists, and even many progressives are in opposition to it.

“I think you have a concerted effort to be in denial of the data … I don’t understand how your no vote will help anyone,” Baskett said to Gaynor.

Gaynor’s “no” vote is a boon to all of us, if for no other reason it’s brought before everyone’s eyes—explicitly—the elephant that’s always been in the room. People have been influenced to believe that public schools serving poor students, working-class students, and students of color, are bad schools; this fiction dovetails with the right-wing legislative agenda that seeks to starve and shutter public schools rather than amply fund them. Parents who send their kids to a more affluent city for their public schooling are accomplices to this agenda, no matter how much they try to retail their decision to themselves and their peers as being only about their child’s “best interest.”

She also referenced comments made earlier in the meeting that some Schools of Choice families who send their children to AAPS do not consider their home school districts a viable option.

“The home district will not be receiving these families,” Baskett said. “If we say no to them, we won’t be receiving these families. These families will go elsewhere, and in some cases, will travel farther to again get the best education that they can for their families. I still am not understanding your position of voting no. Of course I respect it, I just don’t understand it.”

How can Baskett respect something she can’t understand? In any case, her position seems to be: Some parents want to send their kids to school in a district that is not their own. If we don’t capitalize on this, we’re not helping these children. The just position, instead, would go something like this: the school choice system disproportionately harms districts situated in non-affluent, non-majority-white communities; therefore, an ethically sound response by Ann Arbor Public Schools would be to cease participating in that system.

Gaynor’s reservations with supporting Schools of Choice related to the negative effects on neighboring school districts who lose students to AAPS, especially Ypsilanti Community Schools, where 50 percent of the school district’s resident students opt to attend school elsewhere.

At the risk of overly simplifying what’s actually a complex feedback loop, let’s just highlight this, while correcting a crucial typo: “50 percent of the [Ypsilanti Community Schools] district’s resident [parents] opt to attend school elsewhere.” Imagine how Ypsilanti schools might eventually thrive if all those parents brought their kids back?

Under Michigan’s school funding formula, state dollars follow the student. The 1,301 Schools of Choice students who enrolled at AAPS this fall brought an additional $12 million to the district, and those students’ home districts lose the foundation allowance for students who transfer elsewhere.

“In the end, if the loss of a few hundred students jeopardizes our district’s finances with its 17,500 students, it has a severely damaging effect on a district with fewer than 4,000,” Gaynor said.

Never stop stressing this, Jeff Gaynor!

Trustee Jessica Kelly said she appreciated the thought Gaynor put into his statement and his concern for equity among regional schools. She asked him whether he would still oppose the Schools of Choice proposal if he thought enough trustees agreed with him to the point where their vote would actually change the policy.

“My concern is that your vote is going to become a political statement rather than a vote on how you think the issue should go,” Kelly said.

It’s this kind of hostile reactivity that is toxic to change. What Kelly is suggesting is that Gaynor is pretending he’s got a conscience.

Gaynor said he would have to think about that and then added that he stood by his initial statement.

Other trustees pointed out the value in offering families more options in finding the best educational fit for their children. Baskett and board treasurer Harmony Mitchell shared personal stories of how the fear of having to change schools because their families moved negatively impacted them as teens.

The board members also noted that other Washtenaw County schools—with the exception of Chelsea School District—also participate in Schools of Choice, so AAPS would lose students to those districts without any mechanism to boost its own enrollment if it didn’t accept Schools of Choice students.

The idea of competition among schools isn’t going away, said board president Christine Stead, noting U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ support for expanding charter schools and voucher programs. Stead said Michigan’s current school funding model doesn’t provide adequate resources for public schools, and she plans to continue her work with groups trying to create more equity in opportunity for students across Washtenaw County.

“We will continue to work toward that. If we can’t change the state law, we will work as a community to make things better for this area,” Stead said. “That being said, we are—I am—elected by the community in this district. I am responsible for this district, and I support School of Choice for the reasons I’ve articulated this evening. And I look to our community to see if they are picking us.”

Is Stead implying that parents in the Ann Arbor Public Schools system are demanding she keep Schools of Choice going? We doubt it. Does it bring her district more cash? Most definitely. From the state government’s website: “Participation in choice programs is optional for districts. The degree and extent of participation are determined at the local level, including details such as application and enrollment dates, and which building, grades or programs will be accepting enrollment under a choice program. Interested parties will need to contact districts directly for detailed information regarding their program.” Is it a stretch to think local school districts could coordinate to eliminate, or even tone down, their reliance on this exploitative, unjust practice?

Trustee Patricia Manley asked about the number of Schools of Choice students at four elementary schools that are so crowded the board approved purchasing modular classroom buildings for them earlier this month. Manley said she’s heard from community members who are concerned the district is accepting more Schools of Choice students than it has room to accommodate.

Swift replied that the four elementary schools in question—Burns Park, King, Mitchell and Thurston—have enrolled few Schools of Choice students in recent years.

Resident students are guaranteed a spot at their neighborhood school and in-district transfer students have the first chance to apply for available seats before the spots are opened up to Schools of Choice students, Swift said.

“What I would say to folks is we’re never going to open a class for Schools of Choice,” Swift said. “We might fill in a few seats in a class, but we would not create a class.”

AAPS will accept Schools of Choice applications from April 18 to May 12, and another in-district transfer application window will run from April 13 to May 12.

The school district is advertising 100 open seats in kindergarten, including Young 5s; 70 seats in first grade; 50 seats each for second through sixth grade; 25 seats each for seventh and eighth grade; 150 seats in ninth grade; 100 seats in 10th grade; and 30 seats in 11th grade only for Huron High School’s International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme. 

If the district receives more applicants for a certain grade level than it has seats available, a lottery will randomly decide which students are accepted.

Props to Jeff Gaynor for taking a stand, and for making this much-needed intervention. The biggest takeaway, truth be told, is that it’s time for each of us who reside in diverse, non-posh communities, to make persuasive arguments for staying in-district to our fellow parents. Public schools can’t thrive until parents understand that the first volley in the war against DeVosism is to resist the allure of competition in public education and keep kids enrolled where they already live.

Public schools aren’t shoe stores in the mall. They were never intended to compete with one another in the fashion of capitalism, though it’s no surprise, alas, that some stakeholders in Ann Arbor have forgotten this.


Photo by Cassandra Giraldo

2 comments

  1. Jeff Hayner

    Well written and much needed truth telling. Schools of Choice should absolutely be allowed to support in-district transfers, but should not be allowed to operate with the intention/result of gutting neighboring districts. As to the BOE comments, I’m just going to call it like I see it:

    Susan Baskett is an Ann Arbor Dem political player who IMO has not really done all that much for our city. When appointed to the AATA Board, she famously said “I don’t know much about buses” but proceeded to prop up now-disgraced Michael Ford and his millage asks w/o question. Not understanding is her thing, and knives being sharpened is exactly what you heard. Ann Arbor’s Dem “leadership” is all about the Benjamins, and virtue signaling; they are in it for themselves, and will stop at nothing to cut down those who really care about We the People. They have turned A2 into a tax farm for their pet projects.

    Christine Stead is basically saying that she knows the wealthy in Ann Arbor will continue to support the AAPS through expensive, unaccountable millages, pay-to-play, private transportation and the like. She is banking on it, despite her apparent/willful ignorance that increased taxes hit lower-income renters and homeowners much more than the wealthy. BTW, I have asked the school Super and several others at AAPS admin to provide a list of exactly what they are planning on spending the $20 million/year May 6th Sinking Fund millage ask on, and have yet to receive one response. Guess we have to vote for it to see what’s in it? Political power and lack of transparency go hand-in-hand in Ann Arbor.

    AAPS and the City of Ann Arbor need to do more to embrace the binary star that could be A2/Ypsi, not less. Why we haven’t considered combining our districts used to puzzle me, until I had my own kids in school, got more involved in AAPS politics, and got a look at how many people really feel about Ypsi … and this conversation tells the tale. They are propping up the rich white enclave that is Ann Arbor, knowing AAPS is a big selling point to that end. Combining w/ Whitmore Lake was really just being pushed by the regional real estate interests, so they could sell new subs in Northfield Twp. as “Ann Arbor Schools”. AAPSBOE doesn’t want anything to do with Ypsi Schools but to gut it for their own selfish reasons – their inability to stop spending like drunken sailors.

    Remember who voted FOR Schools of Choice when DeVos brings her own version of it to the country—AAPS’s version is just as harmful as that has the potential to be, yet the majority of AAPS BOE will be the first in line to cry foul.

  2. Martha Toth

    Choice has not been proven to be good for students academically,* so what’s the point? It’s about the money. Gaynor makes the moral point that it is dirty money—it comes at the expense of neighbors. Even if trustees are thinking only about those whom they directly represent, the parents of ”choice“ students do NOT pay the operating, bond, or sinking fund taxes that residents have approved, yet they reap the benefits.

    School boards and districts are allowing themselves to be played by the Choice Merchants, who care nothing at all about them, their schools, their students, or their communities. Bravo for Gaynor for explicitly defining this issue.

    *”The records of nearly 3 million Michigan public school students between 2005–06 and 2012–13 were analyzed in [an MSU] study,” which found “no discernible difference in math or reading test scores between kids who transfer using Schools of Choice and those who remain in their home districts.”
    http://www.bridgemi.com/talent-education/study-schools-choice-dont-improve-test-scores

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