It would be expected that a larger school district like Dearborn could more easily absorb the financial impact of losing a few hundred students to competing schools. A smaller district with fewer than 2,000 students, like Flat Rock Community Schools, however, might not survive even a small exodus of students to a charter school or surrounding public "school-of-choice."
Flat Rock, a district located well to the south of Detroit, is home to one of the state's largest charter schools, Summit Academy. With a student population of 1,686, Flat Rock's enrollment ranks 32nd out of the 34 Wayne County districts. Flat Rock received a middling $6,405 per-student state foundation grant and 17.4 percent of its students qualified for the federal free- and reduced-lunch program during the 1998-99 school year.31
Founded by teacher Alison Cancilliari with the assistance of former Flat Rock superintendent Michael Witucki, Summit Academy has steadily increased student enrollment, serving 697 students during the 1998-99 school year (see Chart 4). It has added a grade level each year with the advancing students and intends to provide full K-12 education in the 2000-01 school year. Emphasizing technology and multi-age learning, Summit has proven to be popular enough with parents to draw students from seven surrounding school districts including Flat Rock.
A small district and a large charter schoolmore than one-third the size of the host districtsounds like a recipe for disaster for the host school district. But according to Gerald Peregord, superintendent of Flat Rock Community Schools, "Charter schools are having an impact. I have never been able to say it's a negative one."
In fact, Flat Rock enrollment has increased in recent years despite the opening of Summit Academy. In 1993-94, before Summit opened, Flat Rock enrolled 1,583 students; by the 1998-99 school year the district had nearly 1,700 students. Peregord insists that Flat Rock schools are "totally packed." Yet, he regularly loses students to Summit and even grants 10 to 12 state-aid waivers per year to allow children to transfer to other districts, explaining that "we don't own these children."
Peregord views the financial impact of area charter schools on his district as negligible. He points out that when a charter-school student takes his state foundation grant with him, while Flat Rock loses this money, it also is no longer responsible for educating that student. This is not to say that Peregord is in complete agreement with charter schools. He is not, and remains skeptical of some aspects of Michigan's charter-school legislation. Nonetheless, he described the financial impact on his district as "a wash."32
But the evidence suggests that it is not "a wash." Summit Academy has relieved the Flat Rock school district from some potentially serious facility and financial problems. Increased student enrollment in the small district required the building of a new school to the tune of more than $18 million in order to accommodate 600 students. Taxpayer expense would have dramatically increased if Summit Academy had not absorbed much of this growth in student population. Because charter schools are unable to seek public money through millages and bonds for capital expenditures, they must fund such projects through private means. Instead of being "a wash," the Summit Academy saved the citizens of Flat Rock from having to further increase their taxes.