Effects of School Choice: Holland, Michigan

segregated-city-divided-town-illustration-by-frits-ahlefeldt

While visiting my mother-in-law she gave me an article titled ‘Urban district, suburban community’ from the March 23, 2016 Holland Sentinel newspaper.  The article focused on the long-term effects of school choice on the Holland Public Schools.

The lead sentence of the article stated rather straightforwardly, “State policies that promote school choice have fueled a changing demographic landscape for many of Michigan’s public schools.”  The article goes on to say that 1,600 students (over 30%) within the Holland Public Schools’ boundaries have used the state’s 20 year Schools of Choice law to attend charter schools or go to neighboring school districts.

What caught my eye was the reporter’s assertion that as a result of school choice, the district “doesn’t represent the town in which it operates” and that Holland has become “a fragmented community that prolongs stereotypes.”  The numbers show the demographic differences between the city and school district:

Holland                  White    Hisp./Latino  Black          Asian

2010 Census             68.9%          22.7%        3.2%            2.9%

Holland Public Schools

2015-16                     37.9%         47.1%         7.4%           2.6%

So even though Holland’s population is about 69% White, only 38% of the students in its schools are White.  Similarly, the town is about 23% Hispanic/Latino but its schools have more than twice that proportion.  What happened?

Superintendent of Holland Public Schools Brian Davis points directly at school choice as the reason why the district’s population doesn’t reflect the community it serves. Davis recalls 1996 (when Michigan’s Schools of Choice law went into effect) as a time when Holland parents began to look at neighboring Zeeland schools as a choice. Zeeland was 94% White (2000 census).   Also, providing school choice was an invitation to start charter schools.  Today, 17% of students attending school in Holland go to charter schools.

Davis said some families chose to attend other schools when they noticed an “increasing free and reduced lunch” student population.  He stated that “middle to upper-middle class families with disposable income” were the ones with enough time and money to drive their kids to neighboring Zeeland or charter schools.  It’s not too hard to read between the lines – because they could afford to white families took advantage of the school choice law and left lower-income Hispanic/Latino and Black families in the Holland schools.

Is it OK that school choice allows parents to create segregated schools?  At what point in time do their children learn to live with people who look different from themselves?  Is this the kind of America we want?

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