Faculty prepare case study on the high school space race

December 23, 2008

University Park, Pa. -- Scott Alan Metzger, assistant professor of education, and two colleagues first began sharing observations of inequities and competition between ten school districts in the greater Lansing area at a meeting of the American Educational Research Association a few years ago. They were struck by how many of the districts in recent years had built new or substantially remodeled big high schools, while Lansing Public Schools continued to be unable to pass a bond necessary even to remodel its three aging high schools.

“We were curious about what fueled the interest in the suburban districts’ bigger, better, newer high schools,” says Metzger. “Was it just a case of keeping up with the Joneses?”

So Metzger and his colleagues, Matthew Militello, North Carolina State University, and Alex J. Bowers, University of Texas at San Antonio, set out to examine that question and co-wrote “The High School “Space Race”: Implications of a School-Choice Market Environment for a Michigan Metropolitan Region,” published in Education and Urban Society, Vol. 41, No. 1, 26-54 (2008).

“Our initial hunch was that we would be able to trace a clear causal line between ‘schools of choice’ competition and the race to build big new high schools,” says Metzger. “The more we explored the Lansing-area context, however, the more we realized that this was a complex and ultimately tragic dilemma. It turned out not to be a simple case of suburban schools poaching from urban schools knowingly at their expense but rather the historical consequence of a change in how Michigan funded school operations that left the suburban districts with precious few ways to protect the budgets funding their quality instructional programs.”

In Michigan’s school-choice environment, districts can voluntarily accept students who legally reside in another district. Along with each student comes the per-pupil dollars provided by the state. In the Lansing School District, this represents approximately $7,280 per student to the district. Districts that border Lansing eventually saw the advantage, even necessity, of accepting school-choice students, and soon students were leaving Lansing for schools that were perceived to be better because of the construction boom of new high schools.

As stated in the article, “In a school-choice competitive environment, a district’s only possible responses are fray or pay: Either they join the fray over school construction or else they will pay in the long run by losing students (and their per-pupil revenue) to other districts with newer, better facilities.”

Says Metzger, “Building as much space as possible and joining the competitive fray to draw new students who can commute from the urban district is a perfectly rational response. Nobody is happy with the resulting situation, but it’s all about survival in an era of school competition and accountability.”

How did Lansing School District miss out on the space race? For one, Lansing’s student enrollment has steadily declined. According to the article, in 1987-1988 enrollment was 22,000 and by 2004 it had dropped to 16,780. The White Flight phenomenon may also explain the decline in enrollment. In the 1990s, 60 percent of the students where white compared with 40 percent in 2005. Lansing also has a city income tax that surrounding areas do not have and low-income housing is cheaper in neighboring districts. Also, families with more resources can afford to move to newer housing developments in the suburbs or provide transportation for their children to attend another school district. The result for Lansing has been deteriorating school buildings, less revenue, and enrollment decline. With a declining population and economy, Lansing is at a competitive disadvantage.

Was school-choice alone to blame for the “high school space race?” Were suburban districts poaching Lansing’s students and their revenue by building newer facilities? While this may appear to be the case at first, Metzger and his co-authors concluded that other factors also played a role in Lansing’s problems and contributed to the setting for the space race to ensue.

Those other factors “included state budget shortfalls and job losses…and the gradual realization of school-choice competition as a potential way for suburban districts to address looming budget crises.” Schools needed “to find alternative revenue streams. In the end, suburban schools…chose the rational option: capital improvements. This route enabled districts to create space for new students and, thus, new monies.” Additionally, property tax reform in the 1990s reduced school taxes that homeowners had to pay. With extra money in hand, the homeowners may have been more likely to approve bond proposals for new schools.

“This was an intriguing project for me to work on,” Metzger said, “because it allowed me to apply my interest in the sociology and history of education to analytical policy research that we felt had implications not just for Michigan but for many other regions with school districts in similar situations.”

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Last Updated November 18, 2010