School choice, metro Detroit’s new white flight
When the high school in Eastpointe recently welcomed the football team from Lakeview High, it was a homecoming of sorts.
That’s because nearly 700 students from Eastpointe actually attend school in Lakeview, a public school district five miles away in St. Clair Shores. As it happens, many of the students who left Eastpointe for Lakeview are white.
So it was that on a cool September evening, most students and fans on the home team’s side of the football field were African American, while many of their white neighbors filled the Lakeview side.
It was a sight that saddened Jennifer Ward, head of the band boosters.
A lifelong Eastpointe resident, Ward, who is white, graduated from the high school in 1988, when almost everyone in the district looked like her. Eastpointe was called East Detroit back then, but residents soon changed its name to distance this blue-collar city in Macomb County from the crime-soaked image of its neighbor to the south. The only vestige of its old name is in its schools, which are still called East Detroit Public Schools.
... she also believes that when neighbors don't go to school together, they don't get to know each other as well as those who do.
Ward said she thinks half of those who left East Detroit schools choose other districts for racial reasons. Others, she said, probably did so because the Lakeview schools have better test scores, more funding and better facilities. She admits there is likely no way to know for sure. But she also believes that when neighbors don’t go to school together, they don’t get to know each other as well as those who do.
“East Detroit is diverse. It’s the real world,” Ward said. “Everybody should go to school where they live.”
The white flight seen in Eastpointe is playing out in districts across metro Detroit and around the state.
In the past 20 years, as African Americans have moved out of Detroit and into the suburbs, white parents have, whether by chance or design, used the state’s schools of choice program to move their children to less diverse, more white traditional public schools. At the same time, some black families have chosen historically white suburban school districts to send their children, while others are choosing charter schools that are strikingly more segregated and black.
As a result, school districts across parts of the state are ending up more racially segregated than the communities from where they draw students.
Such is the case in Eastpointe.
Consider: The East Detroit school district is only 19 percent white, even though 40 percent of school-age children living there are white. And the flood of East Detroit students to Lakeview, which is 80 percent white, has produced yet another shift: the loss of students prompted East Detroit to solicit students from other cities, mostly Detroit.
“School choice has accelerated segregation by race, by class, by ability, by special education status and by language,” said Gary Miron, an education professor at Western Michigan University who has reported widely (and often critically) on Michigan’s school choice policies.
Click on or hover cursor on neighboring districts to see how they differ from East Detroit and how many students they received last year via school choice.
But defenders of school choice say the policies produce more good than harm by empowering parents – black and white – whose local schools are failing their children.
Gary Naeyaert, executive director of the Great Lakes Education Project, is one of the staunchest defenders of school choice in Michigan. He acknowledges that choice can financially harm the districts that are losing students.
But he and others contend that education policy should err on the side of supporting parents who want to move their children to schools that are better performing or safer.
Naeyaert said many more families would be hurt if the program was curtailed in an effort to reduce segregation that can accompany generous choice policies. He argues that, if anything, the state should make school choice less restrictive so poor families have more flexibility to take advantage of school options.
“I don’t know if it’s possible to rewrite the rules to (change) social behavior without eliminating options for people,” he said of segregation trends. “We can’t legislate morality and good intentions.”
50 years later: still separate and unequal
Almost 50 years ago, the Kerner Commission, formed to study the causes of urban unrest in Detroit and other cities, concluded that African-Americans and whites in the United States were moving toward “separate and unequal” societies, including in the classroom.
Today, Michigan’s school choice law has led to several districts that are far more majority white, while creating additional districts in which minority students are in the majority, a Bridge analysis of state enrollment records shows.
The number of so-called majority-minority school districts statewide -- where white students are in the minority -- rose from 38 a decade ago to 55 last year. Meanwhile, the number of majority-minority charter schools went from 119 to 182.
Some critics of school choice argue that the state doesn’t necessarily have to get rid of choice programs to discourage segregation in schools. Some strategies, such as locating magnet schools in communities of color, would promote diversity (which researchers see as a positive for students of all races), while giving parents quality options outside their neighborhoods.
But these same critics say the state’s current system has few safeguards.
- Blacks comprise half of the school-age population within East Detroit schools, yet nearly 70 percent of the district’s enrollment.
- Across the state in Holland, white enrollment has plummeted in the last decade, with the top charter destination, Black River, educating 430 Holland students last year. The charter is 74 percent white, compared with a 38 percent white population for the city at large. Nearly half the students remaining in city schools are Hispanic.
- Statewide, more than 93 percent of African-Americans students who attended a charter school last year were in charters that were predominantly filled with minority students. That number reached 97 percent in Detroit’s Wayne County, as well as in neighboring Oakland and Macomb counties.
“Diverse schools foster both academic and non-academic benefits,” said Dr. Roslyn Arlin Mickelson, sociology professor at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte who studies school choice and segregation patterns in Charlotte and across the nation. Students in diverse settings learn better, are more likely to be exposed to different ideas and get better grades, she said.
Those findings echo what the Kerner Commission, established to look at the causes of the 1960s riots that roiled Detroit and cities across the nation, wrote in 1968:
“We support integration as the priority education strategy; it is essential to the future of American society. In this last summer’s disorders we have seen the consequences of racial isolation at all levels…It is indispensable that opportunities for interaction between the races be expanded...If existing disadvantages are not to be perpetuated, we must drastically improve the quality of ghetto education. Equality of results with all-white schools must be the goal.”
But that vision has been a hard sell to parents for decades. They see changes within a school and become uncomfortable with the differences, complaining of increased friction or fears of lowered academic standards. Some have, like students in school lunchrooms or playgrounds, opted to self-segregate.
“They don’t want to make their children the sacrificial lambs on the altar of social science,” Mickelson said. She said it’s up to policy makers to recognize the benefits of diversity —and take steps to minimize the segregationist tendencies of school choice. But she also said she is skeptical that leaders will make different choices than those of the parents who, after all, elect them.
“I would like public policy to be informed by science,” she said. “It’s not.”
A stampede for choice
School choice has been a popular option in Michigan for more than two decades. A byproduct of the 1994 adoption of Proposal A, which radically altered school finance in the state, students were able to switch to any district that opted to open their doors.
Today, over 300,000 students – more than 20 percent of all taxpayer-supported K-12 students in the state – are educated in either charter school or a traditional public school district other than the one in which they live. Whether choice benefits students academically is subject to debate.
Researchers found that Michigan’s choice students typically do no better on state tests than similar students who stay in their home districts. And many students who leave for another district often come back. Findings for students who attend charter schools are more favorable, with Stanford researchers saying that charter students in Michigan typically perform better than those in traditional public schools, at least for those who attend the state’s better performing charter operators.
Choice transforms Macomb schools
Perhaps nowhere in the state are the links between school choice and race more vivid than Macomb County, where East Detroit schools are located.
It is the state’s third largest county and had long been nearly all-white. As recently as 1990, blacks comprised only 1.4 percent of Macomb’s population, despite bordering the largest majority-black city in America. By 2015, its black population had risen to 11.4 percent.
But as African-Americans moved north from Detroit into southern Macomb, thousands of white students used school choice to attend class elsewhere, in districts whiter than the ones they left.
“You’d have to have your head in the sand to not see that some of it is racial,” said Ryan McLeod, the superintendent in East Detroit.
Before Proposal A, parents wanting to switch schools had few options: They could pay tuition at a private school, or they could move their family to another district. With the passage of Prop A, families could remain in their homes and still change their children’s school, few strings attached.
Last year, 11 of Macomb County’s 20 districts lost more students to choice than they received. For each of those 11 districts, the No. 1 destination was a traditional public public district more white than the one they left. And the Macomb district gaining the most choice students was Lakeview.
As white districts get whiter, other Macomb districts are turning increasingly black. In 2003-04, two Macomb districts were majority black. Now, there are four, including East Detroit.
Taken together, white and black, three-of-four Macomb students who took advantage of school choice last year moved to a district that was less diverse than the one they left.
That pattern is being repeated across Michigan.
In the 2009-10 school year, roughly 64 percent of choice students across the state moved to a less diverse district. That rate is now approaching 70 percent, a Bridge review of student residency and demography data shows, changing the face of classrooms from Holland to Jackson.
“The data suggests that might be happening; that some people are leaving because other people are coming,” said Sarah Winchell Lenhoff, an assistant professor of education at Wayne State University who has studied student demographic changes in metro Detroit schools.
The tug of segregation
Lenhoff and fellow Wayne State researchers Ben Pogodzinski and Michael Addonizio examined U.S. Census and state school enrollment data. They found that the 10 school districts that took in the highest number of Detroit students since school choice began saw hundreds of local students leave their districts. And those who left moved to schools with a higher percentage of white students.
Likewise, data compiled for Bridge by a Michigan State University researcher showed that white students used school choice in greater proportions in East Detroit.
Enrollment trends in St. Clair Shores show how choice can impact segregation among white and black students. While the Lakeview district is 80 percent white, the face of South Lake Schools in St. Clair Shores is markedly different. Records show that 23 percent of the school-age population in South Lake is black, but its schools are 47 percent African American.
Similarly, in Warren, another changing Macomb County community, just under a quarter of students living within the Fitzgerald school district are black, but district enrollment is 40 percent African American.
Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, which represents the state’s charter school industry, said quality, not race, is the critical factor for most families taking advantage of school choice policies.
... quality is paramount, with segregation an unintended byproduct of school choice.
Parents may very well opt for a more diverse school district for their children, if all other factors are equal, he said. But quality is paramount, with segregation an unintended byproduct of school choice.
“It’s parents finding a place that works for their children,” Quisenberry said.
Still, support for choice remains solid, and there have even been efforts to make choice policies stronger. In 2011, Gov. Rick Snyder proposed removing all restrictions between districts. His "Any Time, Any Place, Any Way, Any Pace" choice plan would have made it impossible for districts to deny a seat to a non-resident student if space was available.
His proposal went nowhere, Naeyaert said because even supporters of choice didn’t like the idea that districts would be required to open their borders, rather than keeping that decision optional.
Currently, districts get to decide if they want to accept outside students. Which is why districts like Dearborn and Grosse Pointe, which border Detroit, can decline to enroll students from outside their district.
Echoes of the past
The debate over race and school choice goes back decades in metro Detroit.
In 1971, U.S. District Court Judge Stephen J. Roth found that the city’s public schools had for years illegally separated whites and black students in violation of the landmark desegregation ruling of Brown vs. Board of Education. Among Roth’s findings was that Detroit school officials:
- Created “alternative” school zones in racially mixed neighborhoods that allowed white students to transfer to nearly all-white high schools.
- Bused white students past black schools with available space so whites could attend other white city schools. And, similarly, bused black children to other black schools.
- Built new schools in all-white and all-black neighborhoods, ensuring that segregation continued.
What caused a bigger uproar, however, was Roth’s proposed remedy: busing students between Detroit and more than 50 suburban districts in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties, areas where many white former Detroiters had moved.
Roth’s busing plan sparked protests and even more flight: From 1972, when Roth first announced his plan, to 1975, the suburban districts targeted under his plan lost 45,000 students; while suburban districts outside his plan gained 15,000 students, according to a Bridge review of historical enrollment data.
But two years later, a divided U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Roth plan in a landmark ruling that curtailed desegregation busing plans across the county. The majority concluded that the suburban districts should not be compelled to take part in cross-district busing because they did not cause the segregation in Detroit. As a result, districts across the metro region remained largely segregated.
Winners and losers
East Detroit’s superintendent, Ryan McLeod, said it’s too simple to say race is the sole reason students leave the district. Some parents opt for districts with more resources – resources that tend to expand as more choice students transfer in, bringing with them education funding dollars.
On that point, at least, Naeyaert, the school choice advocate, agrees.
“I don’t think this is motivated by race. I think the motivation is getting my child from a district that is doing less well to a district that is doing better,” Naeyaert said.
At Lakeview High, juniors last year had an average ACT composite score of 19.8, well above East Detroit’s 15.8 score, and its elementary school students were far more likely to score proficient than East Detroit youngsters on the most recent M-STEP assessment tests.
That is not much of a surprise, considering that just a third of Lakeview students struggle with poverty, compared with 7-in-10 East Detroit students who live in poverty. Research has consistently shown that more affluent students typically perform better academically than low-income students.
As a result, said McLeod, of East Detroit, school choice will inevitably produce “winners and losers” among school districts. “There are some communities that have benefited from school choice; communities that have the means to take care of basic needs are the winners.”
Under this scenario, East Detroit is not a winner. Indeed, earlier this year, the state stepped in and named a CEO to take over the academic programs at four of East Detroit’s six public schools.
Which is likely to produce more uncertainty: Will parents support the next millage when most East Detroit district residents do not enroll their children in their schools? Will they continue to run for school board? Join the PTA? “With school choice, people don’t have to invest in their local community schools,” McLeod said. “They have the ability to simply send their kids to some place where other parents have made the decisions.”
Is there a better way?
Is it possible to provide choice and stability? Yes, say some researchers, who argue that giving families options for sending their children to school does not have to lead to cuts or racial segregation.
Choice “can be a tool rather than an end in itself,” said Kevin Welner, a researcher at the University of Colorado who has studied the issue. “It’s a question of how you set the rules.”
His study argues that choice should be “grounded in our larger societal goals for our schools, including the valuing of diverse communities.” That would include, as Naeyaert of GLEP suggests, policies that help poor families to get their children to the same schools chosen by more affluent families.
Miron, the Western Michigan University professor, said he agrees that changes to Michigan’s school choice policies can help redeem them.
“We look at Detroit and metro Detroit as the poster child for failed school choice,” Miron said. “School choice is not being used as a tool for alleviating segregation. But it could be, if it was designed for that purpose.”
Mickelson, the UNC-Charlotte professor, said one way states can use choice to foster diversity is to locate magnet schools in minority communities.
“Inter-district choice plans are the best strategies to address choice,” Mickelson said.
Tempted to go, choosing to stay
As the sun set and a cool breeze swept over the East Detroit football game against Lakeview earlier this month, Ward, the band booster, draped a thick blanket over a fellow parent, Loretta Price, who is African American.
Both mothers have daughters in the marching band and concede they have considered transferring their children to Lakeview, where there’s been no budget deficit, nor a threat of state takeover. But transportation remains a barrier.
And, Ward added, her daughter is a sophomore with roots in Eastpointe, stellar grades and a list of school leadership positions. Starting over in a different school in a different city holds less appeal.
“Over there, she’d be just another kid,” Ward said.
So the family stays.
So does Angelia Mitchell, an African American with two children at East Detroit High. Though she, like Ward, is conflicted. She notes that the high school has seen more fights and disciplinary problems in recent years. Racial tensions, rarely discussed, hover over a community that’s changed from majority white to majority black in a decade.
“As parents, we’re all looking for possibilities for our children to go farther. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that," Mitchell said. But she added that whatever decision a family makes, people need to be more accepting of racial differences.
“Education has no color," she said. "How do you get to acceptance? That’s the hard part.”