Michigan’s Other, Often Overlooked, School Choice Program

In the weeks following Betsy DeVos’ nomination for Secretary of Education, Michigan’s charter schools have become a topic of heated debate. Our recent report seeks to shed light on this debate, but it also highlights that charter schools aren’t the only form of public school choice in Michigan. The state is home to a robust set of inter-district choice policies which allow students to attend schools outside their home school district. In fact, more Michigan students attend schools of choice through inter-district choice policies than attend charter schools. A total of six percent of Detroit children attend schools in other districts.

Michigan isn’t the only state with inter-district choice options. The Education Commission of the States identifies numerous states with formal inter-district choice policies on the books, although the purposes, features, and extent to which they are used vary. Yet these policies draw far less attention — and controversy — than charter schools, perhaps in part because students who exercise these options are still served by district-run public schools.

There’s also much less research on the impact of inter-district choice than there is on charter schools or private school choice programs. Researchers at Michigan State University have used state data to track patterns in the flow of students through inter-district choice programs in Michigan, and have found that historically underserved students are more likely to take advantage of inter-district choice options — but also more likely to opt out of them. Less is known about the impact of participation in these programs on students’ achievement, how inter-district choice programs affect the behaviors and performance of both sending and receiving districts, or the implications for future policy design.

Inter-district choice could offer one way to expand options for some students in rural areas where other forms of choice are less accessible. Some progressive education analysts who oppose charters do support inter-district choice models that seek to increase diversity or enable racial/ethnic minority students from predominantly minority districts to attend more diverse schools outside their home district. But voucher and private school choice supporters have often shown little interest in these programs: the choice advocacy group Ed Choice, for example, lists inter-district and intra-district choice as a form of school choice on its website, but its reports tracking the presence of choice options in states focuses only on private school choice options.

Given the prominence of inter-district choice in Michigan — not to mention DeVos’ standard line that a student’s ZIP code shouldn’t determine her educational options — it’s worth asking whether incentives for inter-district choice are likely to or should play a role in a future Trump administration school choice agenda. At a minimum, existing inter-district choice programs deserve more attention, analysis, and research.

To read our other coverage of Betsy DeVos, click here.