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Choice, the newest notion in education reform, is a radical idea embraced by both liberals and conservatives. Does it stand a chance in Dallas?
By Sally Giddens |

IT’S THE FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL CIRCA 1955, and little Joey dons his cap and pedals down the street with the rest of the neighborhood kids to the familiar red brick building. Maybe he’ll get a good education there, find an enthusiastic teacher and a caring principal. But chances are, even if he doesn’t, he’ll still ride his bike to that same school building every day. Joey doesn’t have much choice. It’s not likely that his parents will pack up the moving van and travel across town to seek a better education.

Now flash forward to the first day of school circa 1990. Fewer than 25 percent of Dallas residents enroll their kids in the public schools. Others, fed up with negative press and plunging test scores, have exercised the only choice they felt they had: they’ve chosen to get their kids out of the public schools. Just read the headlines and weep: “Skills test scores drop in DISD. Anglo-minority gap in achievement noted.” And below the headlines are the even bleaker reports comparing the DISD to national norms: “Fewer Dallas public school students than last year can read, write, and compute with the skill expected for their grade…” Over the past decade, the number of DISD students who test on their grade level, generally between 55 and 65 percent, had been inching steadily upward. A stall in that trend the past two school years was a great disappointment.

The steady stream of bad news about the school system has fueled renewed debate over public school reform. But this lime reform-minded politicians, parents, and academicians are going far beyond garden-variety improvements and the bold if belated moves of reformers like Mark White and H. Ross Perot to call for a clean-sweep revamping of public education. The centerpiece of the movement is a radical and complicated notion called simply “choice.”

Today, choice has become an enticing buzzword for a system in which parents who opt for public education choose a school for their child, rather than being forced to attend a neighborhood school mandated by attendance zones. A number of versions of choice are already in place around the country, ranging from intra-district systems, whereby, for example, parents could choose any DISD school for their child, to inter-district choice, which would allow a DISD parent to choose, say, a school in Piano or Highland Park. In Vermont, parents in towns that don’t have a public high school, or aren’t part of a unified school district, receive “vouchers” to attend the school of their choice anywhere in the state or even in another state. Even magnet schools-where certain academic concentrations, like the arts or science, are developed to attract students from all attendance zones-represent a version of choice.

The variations are many. But at the heart of the choice concept is the belief that if parents are allowed to choose their children’s schools, then the entire public school system will be thrown into a competitive frenzy. Schools with strong reputations will attract waiting lists, while schools that fail to perform grow cobwebs. In the time-honored American tradition of free-market competilion, the strong survive and the weak are forced either to improve or face extinction. It is an appealing concept, at least to those who are not faced each fall with the task of outfitting and staffing (he hundreds of public schools in a typical big-city system.

Actually, choice has been around for some time, but only recently has it begun to gather significant momentum. Choice has been the cornerstone of “education president” George Bush’s rhetoric on education policy, Locally, GOP Congressman Steve Bartlett, who represents large portions of North Dallas, the Park Cities, and some parts of Piano and Garland (which has a version of choice in place), is a strong choice advocate. Ditto for State Representative Bill Hammond, a Republican who has been the Dallas area’s most active and vocal legislator on education issues in Austin.

Not surprisingly, the choice idea strikes a resonant chord with political conservatives who like the idea of forcing schools to compete. But choice has begun to attract an equally strong lobby from liberals. This past summer, The Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that has been a leading shaper of liberal policies, issued a report that was a wholehearted endorsement of choice. The study, Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools, by John E. Chubb and Terry M. Moe, drew national attention.

The study sought to understand what accounted for learning. Was it a student’s situation at home and with peers; was it background? Or was it teacher salaries and the number of dollars spent per child?

What Chubb found, he says, was that these areas that reformers typically address weren’t necessarily what make schools work. What did emerge from the study were characteristics common to successful schools: a sense of purpose; a strong principal; teachers who were treated like professionals; and high expectations. These four attributes, Chubb says, create a dynamic that imparts to students the equivalent of an extra year of learning.

What’s more, these characteristics. Chubb maintains, are most often found in schools that are ruled not by a cumbersome bureaucracy but by parents who choose to have their child attend a certain school.

Chubb builds a generic model for choice in which students have the freedom to attend any school in their state. Their parents “pay” for such a privilege with a scholarship, or voucher, made up of federal, state, and local funds. Schools would make admissions decisions subject to nondiscriminatory requirements. Transportation to these potentially far-flung destinations, according to Chubb’s plan, would be provided “to the extent that tax revenues would allow.”

But as fast as the flame for choice is spreading, not everyone shares the enthusiasm. In fact, education administrators tend to view it as a logistical nightmare. “Choice makes it hard for a district our size, with 133.000 students, to plan.” says school board chair Mary Rutledge. “To provide adequate transportation would be cost-prohibitive, so poor students who can’t provide their own are left out.” School board vice president Yvonne Ewell fears that a competitive atmosphere, where one school seeks to out-market the other through special programs, will lead to a system in which sexy enrichment programs and electives are prized and the basics are lost.

But by far the greatest alarm over choice stems from a fear that inner-city schools in poor, mostly minority parts of town literally will go bankrupt by failing to attract enrollment. Ewell. who is black, worries that poor children would be left prisoners in schools that no one with a real choice would choose.

Indeed, the entire subject of choice is peppered with racial politics. With minority enrollment in the DISD now at 82 percent, the push for choice in Dallas is a poorly veiled crusade to get white kids to come back to the public schools, many believe. Ewelland others fear that the choices parents- especially white parents-would make would lead to resegregation.

“[Choice advocates] want the schools opened up for white children on their own terms,” says Ewell. “A lot of it is about whites reclaiming the schools.”

In part, choice was used in Cambridge. Massachusetts, to attract whites back into the system, and it worked. Choice began full scale in Cambridge in 1981 when the middle-class working community, which had lost enrollment to white flight in the Seventies, was sending 78 percent of its kids to public-schools; today it’s 90 percent. Whites have returned without hurting the community’s efforts to desegregate, says Dr. Charles Glenn, who has wrestled with choice and desegregation in Massachusetts for twenty years, as executive director of the Office of Educational Equity.

Since choice was implemented, Glenn says, basic skills test scores have improved. Between 1981 and 1985, average scores shot up some 14.2 percent. “Choice does not increase anyone’s reading scores.” Glenn cautions. “It does create an atmosphere for schools to develop the characteristics common to effective schools-autonomy, clarity of mission, and accountability.”

Autonomy and accountability are vital prerequisites to the choice system, advocates say. Putting people in charge-and holding them responsible for progress-gets results. East Harlem’s school district in 1973 ranked rock bottom in student performance out of the thirty-two New York City districts. The children. 60 percent Hispanic. 35 percent black, and 5 percent white, were mainly from low-income families, many with only one parent in the household, many on welfare. Desegregation was not the issue in East Harlem. Improving the schools was.

In 1974, East Harlem became one of the nation’s first big-city choice guinea pigs when it opened three small alternative schools. Now the district has twenty-eight schools, each with its own unique mission, from which parents can pick and choose.

In East Harlem, its administrators believe, choice has made a huge difference in the quality of education. In 1973, only 15 percent of students tested at their grade level or belter for basic skills. Today. 65 percent test at grade level or belter, raising the district to sixteenth among New York City public school districts.

IN DALLAS. THOSE WHO KNOW THE DISD from newspaper highlights of marathon school board meetings, charges of racism, and back-room political antics are ready to condemn the DISD as is and become choice believers. After all, the whole idea sounds very American. The undergirding of the Brookings study-that kids aren’t learning as much today-seems easily proven true here.

But within DISD, the watchword is caution. Insiders claim that radical reforms like choice aren’t needed here. They believe that the alarm is unwarranted, and that while progress may not be readily apparent to the casual newspaper reader, the DISD is actual-ly one of the best urban school districts.

In fact, comparisons of the DISD to similar big-city districts, which educate minority children and poor children and children of single parents with little time for the PTA, do make DISD shine.

And when compared to Houston, Dallas also looks good. In recent Texas Educational Assessment of Minimum Skills (TEAMS) tests, 59 percent of Dallas students passed all tests in reading, writing, math, and language arts. In Houston, only 44 percent of students passed all tests.

So could choice really make a difference in Dallas? We have a form of choice already: our magnet school system, often touted as one of the country’s best, has been successful in attracting students from a wide geographic area. One of the system’s strongest magnet schools, the Arts Magnet, seems to grow in prestige every year. The school’s test scores are among the best in the district. And the Arts Magnet has not compromised the basics; standardized tests rate students on competency in language and math-not dance and trombone.

Whether an all-out choice system in Dallas would be worth the logistical effort is a question that can’t yet be answered. DISD officials are skeptical, to say the least. Superintendent Marvin Edwards thinks a system of choice that goes beyond that already offered in the DISD would be extremely difficult to administer-especially if the district were trying to provide “equal opportunity access.”

“You can call it equal opportunity access, but it’s not equal opportunity if a child can’t get there or if a school is allowed to accept some students and reject others,” Edwards points out.

Choice could also destroy the sense of community that a strong neighborhood school can provide. Many Dallas residents have literally bet their home equity on the strength and continued draw of the little school down the street.

One thing is for sure: the debate will continue until major improvements are evident. And therein lies another problem: perceptions about public education tend to lag behind reality. Today’s public schools have a different mandate than the schools of the Fifties, says Robert Haley, DISD parent and medical researcher at The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. Haley applies his professional standards of statistical analysis to the DISD for one reason: to make sure his own kids are getting a good education. Haley believes that most people compare schools today to a rosy past when poor kids often dropped out early, and black kids went to inadequate black schools. Now, for the first time in history, Haley maintains, public schools are supposed to educate all children of all backgrounds. Many of those kids represent the first generation in their family to attend school. With such dramatically different demographics, Haley and others believe, measuring the public school system against Beaver Cleaver ideals is an exercise in futility.

Still, strong choice advocates like Bill Hammond are convinced that the system is sick, and that only a strong treatment can bring about a cure. If 60 percent of the kids in DISD perform on grade level, Hammond is worried about the other 40 percent. “We can’t just write off those kids who are failing,” he says.

There’s little doubt that those characteristics that mark successful schools as identified by the Brookings study are worth striving for. And in part, Edwards’s administration has already begun granting more autonomy to principals and cutting bureaucratic meddling in instructional areas. Dallas has also been plagued by meddling from its elected trustees, a board that has been judged the least-respected elected body in Dallas County.

However, even its strongest advocates should not think that choice would be a panacea for all the city’s educational ills. The strife-torn, radically gridlocked Dallas school board would likely see little change from the institution of a choice system. One year after a choice system was implemented in Boston, contentiousness and racial polarization within the school board haven’t improved a bit.

Likewise, those who see choice as delivering Dallas from its administrative overload (currently there is one non-teacher for every teacher employed) are also heading for disappointment . Choice can create its own bureaucracy, with new demands on support, planning, and information personnel.

But choice is an idea that isn’t going to go away. According to school board chair Mary Rutledge, more DISD students now make choices about the schools they attend than do all of the choice participants in Minnesota, which has statewide choice.

We’ll continue to hear more about choice during the next legislative session, beginning January 1991. State Representative Hammond chairs a choice committee that will make a recommendation to the state legislature by the end of this year. As the debate grows, choice will no doubt be looked at in greater detail by the school board.

“We may see a time when we move to more options,” Rutledge says. “But I’m concerned when people think choice is the answer to all of our problems. What we need to work hard at is making all schools excellent-not writing some off.”

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