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'School Vote' To Ask Delaware Valley Citizens To Learn About Schools, Then Give Opinions

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Residents of the populous Delaware Valley--the Philadelphia area, southern New Jersey, and Delaware--are being asked this month to render a "public judgment" on issues surrounding schooling in their communities.

The unusual citizen-participation project, the concept of a New York nonprofit organization, has been developed under the joint sponsorship of the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Philadelphia CBS radio and television affiliate, WCAU, and newspapers in Wilmington, Del., and Atlantic City, N.J., with funding from a number of foundations. Advisory-committee members include state and local public- and private-school officials, teacher and parent representatives, and civic leaders.

Discussion, Then Balloting

"SchoolVote," as the effort is known, is involving the public through a series of community meetings about school problems and issues, talk shows and public-service radio announcements on WCAU, and related activities sponsored by local schools.

The campaign will culminate the week of June 9 with the publication in participating newspapers of a ballot asking for reader responses to a number of questions about the focus and content of schooling.

SchoolVote's goal, said Jean4Johnson, project director for the New York-based Public Agenda Foundation, is "to get people to tackle the issues facing the schools squarely, to think them through for themselves, and to speak their minds after they have done some thinking." Unlike survey research, which simply samples "public opinion," she said, the SchoolVote effort is intended to produce a more thoughtful "public judgment."

The two founders of the nonpartisan research organization--the pollster Daniel Yankelovich and former Secretary of State Cyrus Vance--see the distinction as important, she said, and have sought to develop projects that will help citizens "understand and make up their minds about important societal issues." The group's first experiment with the public-judgment concept, Ms. Johnson said, was a similar project called "HealthVote," which has been carried out in six cities over the past three years.

Special Supplement

The Philadelphia project, the first launched by the foundation in the education field, began this month with a special 12-page tabloid supplement produced and carried by the Philadelphia Inquirer that asked: ''Should we change what we're doing in our public schools?"

The illustrated supplement described some key concerns of school officials. Then it suggested: "Now, put yourself in the place of a school decisionmaker. Let's say you can do only 10 things from the following list. Put a check next to the 10 you think most important."

The list, which project sponsors say is more general than the actual ballot will be, includes 17 items. Among them: "Develop good work habits and the ability to organize one's thoughts and to think creatively and logically"; "Educate all students to their full potential, including those with learning and physical disabilities"; "Teach practical skills such as home economics, driver's education, wood and metal shop, auto mechanics, etc."; "Teach students to deal with adult responsibilities and problems, i.e., sex, marriage, parenting, personal finances, alcohol and drug abuse."

The questions on next month's ballot, sponsors say, were derived from "grassroots" discussions with school officials, students, and other community members in recent months.

Participants will be asked to mail their completed ballots to SchoolVote or to hand-deliver them to local ballot boxes. High-school students in the region will be polled in a separate ballot. The results will be publicized during a special prime-time telecast by WCAU on June 19.

An estimated 75,000 to 100,000 completed ballots are anticipated, said Fred Stein, an independent media consultant working on the project. The total cost of the initiative, including the value of in-kind services provided by the media, will total about $750,000, he said.

A spokesman for the School District of Philadelphia said School Vote has received the "full support" of Superintendent of Schools Constance Clayton, who has said that while the poll is not a mandate,school officials will be guided by its findings.

Funding for SchoolVote was provided by the John R. and Mary Markle Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the gte Corporation, and a number of Delaware Valley-area foundations, businesses, and civic groups.--mm

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