Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Budget Notes: Class Commentary

This is the second of two posts on the AAPS budget proposal, but let's start with this: all of the local school districts are having budget forums. At the Ann Arbor forum on Monday, the majority of parents were parents of elementary school students. Besides me, there was only one other Ann Arbor Open parent. Parents of middle and high school students. . . interested community members. . . PLEASE. SHOW UP! Share your thoughts. The next forum in Ann Arbor is this Thursday (tomorrow!) at 6:30 p.m. at Skyline. You can also write the Board of Education at

For years, Ann Arbor has been reluctant to add students from other districts through what is known as a "schools of choice" program. Originally, the district ostensibly didn't want to add other students because the per-student payment that Ann Arbor would get from out-of-district students was significantly less than the per-pupil payment for in-district students (because Ann Arbor has the highest per-pupil allocation in the county).

Lately, that thinking has shifted a little bit. If you have a partially-full school, then the incremental cost of adding a student is somewhat less, so why not add those school of choice students? And so we come to the point, now, where we have limited schools of choice for elementary and middle school students--only some Ann Arbor elementary and middle schools are open to students from other school districts.

If you have your ear to the ground at all, though, you would know that where parents feel stressed out is in the lack of options for high school students. There are fewer charter schools and fewer private schools for high school students.

It just so happens that at the budget forum, they ask you about your ideas for generating new revenue. And, if you've been paying attention to the budget discussions, then you know that bringing in students of choice from other districts at the high school level could bring in a lot of money. So, I wrote down, "Add some high school "school of choice" slots--perhaps 30 each to Huron, Skyline, and Pioneer." [In case you are wondering, if fully enrolled this would bring in about half-a-million dollars with negligible impact.]

But I didn't stop there. Because as soon as I thought of it, I thought, "This is so obvious that there must be a reason they haven't decided to do it, and I wonder what that reason is!" I knew that before Skyline was full, when Pioneer and Huron were over-full, they didn't want to add school of choice students. But next year, we'll be at equilibrium with all three Ann Arbor comprehensive high schools roughly at their stated capacity. 

So. I asked an administrator and a school board member why we couldn't add school of choice students to the high schools. I won't tell you which administrator or school board member because I didn't tell them I'd be quoting them and these were private conversations, but the essence of the answers were these.

Administrator: Well, we could consider doing that. We had kind of wanted to wait to see how Skyline looks as a full school, and we don't currently offer any options for students to switch between schools [except for the very limited Skyline schools of choice enrollment for freshmen]. (In other words, a student at Huron cannot decide she or he would rather go to Pioneer.)

My feeling about this: I believe that the administrator was saying that if we offer opportunities to out-of-district students that we don't offer to in-district students, we could get in trouble (politically, from parents and others). I admit, that's a good point about allowing movement between the high schools, and maybe in-district schools of choice should be open to a limited number of students too. We already do that at the elementary and middle schools.  But I don't think we have the luxury of waiting another year, and I think if we were (say) to open 15 freshmen and 15 sophomore slots at each of the main high schools, that would raise money with little stress on the district. [My only qualm is that I don't like the feeling of "poaching" on other schools.]

School Board Member: Well, we could revisit this, but at least in the past we have felt that we needed to bring kids up through our program. So they start in elementary or middle school, and move up through our system. We do look at test scores a lot. 

My feeling about this: There was no break between the school board member's second and third sentences, and therefore the implication that I took from this statement was that a) students in other districts do worse than our students and b) the students who would come into our district from other districts are likely be poorer performers on tests. So I was extremely shocked, and I told said board member that I thought this was a very snobby way to look at things. Put another way, I believe this was a classist statement.

The statement implies that only Ann Arbor teachers and only the Ann Arbor school district know how to educate students. It implies that students in other districts do worse on tests like the MEAP.  This is simply not true. Dexter and Saline schools have similar or better scores, and other districts come close. 
The statement implies that typically the students who come into the district through a schools of choice program would be lower-performing on the almighty tests. However, typically the families that search out schools of choice are the highest-performing, most involved families--in fact one argument about charter schools is that they "cherry pick" high performing students seeking the best opportunities.
The statement takes as a given that the students who come in would not have previously been in our district--even though we know there is plenty of movement in and around Washtenaw County, with students moving between school districts.  
In fact, there is no proof that these ideas are true, yet they appear to be influencing our school board's decision-making.

I was extremely disappointed by this answer. It made me wonder if the whole school board is similarly classist. I read it as assuming that students who would come in are poorer than students who are here already. Poverty does drive test scores, to a great extent, but it's not a given that poor students will do poorly on tests, and even if it were, it seems the height of arrogance to me to say that we can't take in school of choice students in ninth or tenth grade because they might not do well on tests.

I also started thinking about this: since poor people are disproportionately people of color, the issues of the "racial" achievement gap and the "class" achievement gap are closely entwined.

It occurs to me that Ann Arbor is not the only school board that perhaps feels this way, because I know Saline only takes school of choice students into their "alternative" high school, where--on average--the school of choice students have been doing better than the Saline students. 

I hope the school board reconsiders, and opens the comprehensive high schools to a limited schools of choice program.


  1. It may be snobby but it is true. Students who come in from outside the district tend to struggle to keep up... unless they come from a comparable district.

    We don't get a lot of kids coming to us from Saline or Dester or Chelsea. We get kids who come from Ypsi and further East and they really struggle. They often require support classes. Since they don't bring in the full per pupil allotment that an A2 kid does, they can cost more than they bring in.

    If the person of adding spots is to bring in revenue, it does not compute.

  2. Lisa--In regards to whether it is true, I would like to see the data on this. My understanding is that--with the exception of Stone School, which is an underperforming school that specifically recruits kids who either have dropped out or are about to drop out--Ann Arbor has not had any out of district school of choice kids until (I believe) last year, and even then just a few in some schools. (Most of those schools, by the way, were on the eastern side of the district. I think the high schools--particularly Pioneer and Skyline, because of their locations--would bring in a different group.)

    So I would imagine that the data would be too thin to really analyze at this point. I'd also want to see if they were actually being enrolled in support classes that required extra staffing. If a student is enrolled in a more basic math class, it doesn't necessarily mean that additional staffing was used. (And if that data exists, feel free to let me know where it is.)

    That might perhaps answer the question of whether those students actually "cost" more to the district than they bring in, in revenue. I'm very skeptical that they do cost more.

    It does beg the more philosophical question of whether we should be excluding students because we think they will do worse. I don't think we should. At best, it is classist, and given the confluence of race and class in this country, it has the potential to be racially-motivated as well.

    From my point of view, our best schools will have a wide diversity of students, and I mean that in every way.

  3. Imagine being Ypsilanti Public Schools, and getting kids who come from Ypsi and further East who really struggle and who often require support classes. I bet those students can cost more than they bring in here, too.

    Now imagine being Ypsilanti and receiving a much lower per-pupil allowance than Ann Arbor does.

    I wonder if this could be part of our budget problem. Something for the western Washtenaw residents to think about.

    Sorry to seem kind of touchy about this, but wow, that earlier comment did get to me. I don't want to think of Ann Arbor as the "I got mine" crowd. Shouldn't we be working together to help ALL our kids, in whatever way we can?

    On that note, let's get this special education millage renewal passed!