Recent Experience With Urban School Choice Plans
It is generally agreed that urban public schools and school systems need to radically change how they are governed. Proponents of school choice believe that empowering families with educational options will promote such a change, because it presupposes that schools will reform to increase their attractiveness. In fact, choice has been widely adopted; hardly a state in the United States does not have some type of choice plan, and hardly a major urban area does not have a limited choice plan. This digest presents an overview of different choice strategies by reviewing the experiences in several urban areas.
Statewide Choice: Minnesota
In 1988 Minnesota became the first state to enact statewide open enrollment for all students, making all public schools throughout the state open to any K-12th grade student, provided that the receiving school has room and the transfer does not harm racial integration efforts.
Students also have numerous other options. High school juniors and seniors can take courses at public or private higher education institutions for both high school and future higher education credit. The High School Graduation Incentive Program allows dropouts and students at risk of not graduating to attend public or private nonsectarian schools with special supportive programs. In addition, families are allowed to claim a tax deduction up to $ 1,000 for school expenses, including private school tuition. Other initiatives include the Diploma Opportunities for Adults, designed for students age 21 and over; education programs for pregnant and parenting minors; and Area Learning Centers, which offer personalized education programs for students age 12 to adult.
The Charter Schools Act permits teachers to create and operate new public schools on contract to the local school board. Charter schools, accountable to public authority and parents, offer innovative or alternative educational opportunities for students. Thirty-five charters are allowed in the state (Shokraii & Hanks, 1996 ).
Enrollment. In 1995, 15 percent of the state’s 750,000 public school students participated in various school choice programs. Use of within-district choice was greater in urban areas; use of open enrollment was more likely in smaller districts and rural areas. Use by minority students is on the rise, with minority and low-income students well represented in “second chance” programs (Colopy & Tarr, 1994; Nathan, 1994).
Parent Information/Satisfaction. Parent information remains a key in determining the use of any choice alternative. However, the sole statutory responsibility for school choice information dissemination to parents resides with the local school districts, even though they might face a conflict of interest because of the threatened loss of students, and, therefore, funds. Other information sources exist, such as hot lines, but seem inadequate since a 1990 survey found that parents were aware of open enrollment but not of additional choice initiatives.
Parent satisfaction with charter schools is very high. Most liked their special curriculum features, small size, and environment. Major causes of dissatisfaction were a lack of school resources, transportation, inadequate space, school administration, and turmoil during the first year (Shokraii & Hanks, 1996).
Impact on School Districts. There is mixed evidence on the impact of open enrollment on program improvement in school districts, but it appears that there was little validity to the theory that choice prompts schools and districts to reform programming to meet the demands of families. Only some districts that lost a high number of students experienced teacher layoffs; cancellation of academic courses, extracurricular activities; and student support services; and school closings (Funkhouser & Colopy, 1994).
Equity. Minority youth comprise about 40 percent of charter school enrollments (Nathan, 1996). Open enrollment has stimulated a noticeable increase in the ethnic diversity of Minnesota public schools, and has fostered a more equitable distribution of educational resources at the local school level (Tenbusch, 1993).
Student Achievement. There is no conclusive data on the effects of open enrollment on academic achievement. However, students feel that their self-esteem, attitude, and attendance are greatly improved at their school of choice (Rubenstein, 1992). Certain charter schools are indicative of the improvements that open enrollment has promoted in Minnesota. The City Academy in St. Paul, for example, with a program for alienated young adults wishing to return to school, has graduated 54 percent of its students in three years (Shokraii & Hanks, 1996).
Citywide Choice: New York City
New York City, the largest public school system in the country, consists of 32 community school districts serving nearly 1.5 million highly diverse students. In 1992 then New York City Schools Chancellor Joseph Fernandez initiated a citywide choice plan.
Parents have the right to transfer their children to any New York City public school, provided space is available. Parents who want to take advantage of the interdistrict choice plan need to contact the Board of Education to obtain a copy of the Chancellor’s Choice Regulation, and become familiar with the chosen school’s procedures and requirements. They must then write a letter to the superintendent of that school’s district to request a transfer. The time period for the superintendent’s response is not specified. If a request is rejected, the parent has the right to appeal to the Chancellor. There is no guarantee that siblings will be transferred to the same school and, most importantly, transportation is not provided.
Fernandez’ successors have been faced with difficulties more urgent than choice. Thus, there has been almost no publicity by the Board of Education or in the districts. In fact, the only detailed information on choice available to the public is contained in a special New York Newsday “pullout” section published in 1993 (Cookson & Lucks, 1995).