Let’s stop playing checkers and start playing chess // Mike Conlin

Many parents with children in East Lansing Public Schools (ELPS) have been in an uproar the past couple of days over the crazy transition plans the school board proposed.

As ELPS begins to implement their elementary school reconfiguration, it is clear that no one has done any credible analysis of: (i) how the elementary school catchment areas should be drawn; (ii) how the school of choice decisions should vary across schools and grades; (iii) how permeable boundary requests affect these decisions; and (iv) what programming should exist at Red Cedar.  Perhaps this type of analysis should have been done prior to spending $93 million, but given that is wasn’t, what should be done now?

To analyze questions of student demand in (i)-(iii) requires real training. Not only do you have to forecast growth rates of resident students within elementary catchment areas, but you have to account for within-catchment variability in the number of students in a given grade (i.e., a grade where there are more than ~60 or fewer than ~40 for a particular catchment area).  While a small number of resident students in a grade can be addressed by accepting more permeable boundary or school of choice students (assuming there is enough demand from these students), a large number is more difficult to address.  The fact that five of the schools have a 13th classroom (2 classes per 6 grades results in 12 classrooms) does not adequately address this demand variability.  What if an elementary school catchment area has two grades with a large number of students and they are within 5 years of each other?  Differential growth rates (both positive and negative) in the number of resident students in the elementary catchment areas will be even more problematic, resulting in large class size differences across schools or portable classrooms at schools that experience positive growth rates.  The high percent of school of choice students in the district (~23%) could provide some ability to address this within catchment area student variability – but ELPS does not understand how to make school of choice and permeable boundary decisions that address this demand variability.

While this type of demand analysis requires real training, East Lansing is fortunate that Steven Haider (a colleague of mine in MSU’s economics department who has a national reputation in demand analysis) was on the 2017 bond committee and volunteered to do a thorough demand analysis prior to the 2017 bond proposal.  He could do this and formulate a coherent transition plan during construction, only if the district provided the necessary data.  This never occurred.  Instead, we had local politicians, school board members, lawyers, education consultants and education academics, who have no training or expertise in demand analysis, advocate for an elementary school reconfiguration with unknown implications and unspecified educational programming for Red Cedar.

The rudimentary analysis of “right-sized” elementary school catchment areas being proposed by the ELPS administration and board is already causing problems and will result in much larger issues down the road.  If Steven Haider is not provided the data to do the analysis and ELPS continues to play checkers, here are some possible ways the district can address the demand variability and differential growth rates across elementary school catchment areas.

  • Have large differences in class sizes across the six elementary schools and across grades.
  • Have portable classrooms for schools that have grades with a large number of students.
  • Redraw the catchment areas on a regular basis.
  • Stipulate to school of choice and permeable boundary students that their elementary school assignment could change across years.

These alternative ways to address demand variability are obviously not in the best interest of the students.  Perhaps ELPS should start playing chess and have Steven Haider provide an analysis that will result in a more sensible solution.

Mike Conlin


[The information in this post is represent my views and do not necessarily represent the views of MSU.]

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