Oxford Foundation Michigan

Who Is Entitled to a Free Public Education?

During the discussion with the various education interests, there appears to be a difference of opinion as to what Michigan residents are eligible to attend the “free public elementary and secondary schools” authorized by the Article VIII, §2 of the Michigan Constitution of 1963:

The legislature shall maintain and support a system of free public elementary and secondary schools as defined by law. Every school district shall provide for the education of its pupils without discrimination as to religion, creed, race, color or national origin.

The issue is significant in light of Governor Snyder’s approach to improving public education in that it contemplates an “unbundling” of public education.

In summary, there seem to be two inconsistent views:

  • School District Control. Under this approach, admission to the public school is limited to pupils who enroll in and are controlled by the school district, i.e., “its pupils.” While every Michigan resident has the right to attend a free public elementary or secondary school, the student must attend a school is a single school district for all of his or her education in order to eligible for the “free” education.
  • Pupil/Parent Rights. An alternative view is that the “free public elementary and secondary schools” are to be established for the benefit of the pupils of the state and the legislature, in maintaining and supporting a “system,” has created a system whereby the pupil and his parents may select either a complete package of education from the district of the pupil’s residence or select to receive only part of his or her experience from a particular school.

The laws enacted by the Legislature to establish the “system” are divided on this subject. But, as outlined below, it appears that Michigan’s system or free public elementary schools permit the following:

  • Pupils in Michigan have a right to attend public schools for some or all of their education.
  • Pupils generally (but not always) have a statutory right to attend the school district of their residence and receive the K-12 education offered by the district.
  • Pupils have limited rights to attend certain postsecondary institutions and have state aid funds pay for the postsecondary course as part of the pupil’s high school education.
  • Pupils are not required to attend the district of their residence in order to receive state funding; they can attend any charter school statewide if they win an enrollment lottery.
  • Within limits, a pupil can attend one school for most of his or her education and attend another school with a specialized course and have that specialized course paid for with state funds.

The School Aid Act of 1979 originally was based on the concept of “membership” of a pupil in the pupil’s district of residence. This approach reflects the school district control model whereby the district would both control and be responsible for the pupil’s entire public education experience. Any deviation from this model required either legislative approval or the specific approval of the district authorities. Because Michigan has a mandatory enrollment policy, the law had to assure that every Michigan resident pupil had a district in which he or she could enroll. The system was never universal however, because some areas of the state did not have the full K-12 elementary and secondary system. Pupils in K-8 districts were allowed, and required, to attend a secondary school in another district.

Other exceptions were made to the assigned school system where the district could not or would not serve the pupil, including:

  • Special education pupils
  • Pupils expelled from school
  • Pupils under court jurisdiction
  • Pupils with health problems prohibiting full time enrollment

In addition, the right of families to provide their own education at their own cost was recognized as an exception, so long as the private or church school met certain state standards.

After a contentious debate, school officials who sought to prohibit homeschoolers were defeated and Michigan families have a right to homeschool their children.

In the 1990s, the Michigan Legislature adopted policies that permitted pupils and their parents to select new public schools without the approval of district of residence, including:

  • Public school academies, schools of excellence, and cyberschools.
  • Enrollment in an adjacent district in the same ISD.

In these new situations, the pupil merely switches schools; he or she continues to receive the entire education in a single school.

Examples where pupils enroll in multiple schools include:

  • Nonpublic school students who enroll in and receive state funding for nonessential courses.
  • Dual enrollment is postsecondary institutions.

At this time, the School Aid Act includes several sections whereby state aid funding is allocated on a proportional basis for pupils attending more than one public school.

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