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Department Expands Its Conferences To Promote Choice

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Washington--The Education Department has expanded both the length and number of regional conferences it is hosting this fall to promote choice as a school-reform strategy.

Each of the five meetings--one more than originally scheduled--will be presided over by Secretary of Education Lauro F. Cavazos, and will include presentations by other national and local leaders.

The meetings form the centerpiece of the department's initiative on parental choice, which was unveiled by Mr. Cavazos in a May 19 speech.

Department officials also have added an evening session to encourage parents to attend the meetings.

Parents will be asked to relate their experiences with existing choice programs or to describe the types of programs they would like to see established, said John D. Klenk, director of the choice initiative.

"Parental choice is the cornerstone to restructuring elementary and secondary education," Secretary Cavazos said in a statement. "These regional strategy meetings will bring this valuable reform to the attention of families in every part of the nation."

The first meeting is scheduled to be held Oct. 16 and 17 in East Harlem in New York City, site of one of the most long-running and celebrated parental-choice programs.

The others will be held Oct. 23 and 24 in Minneapolis; Nov. 13 and 14 in Charlotte, N.C.; Nov. 16 and 17 in Denver; and Nov. 28 and 29 in Richmond, Calif.

"The local school authorities in several cases are making available the opportunity to visit some schools of choice, either the day after the meeting or during the day preceding the parents evening," Mr. Klenk said.

School officials in Richmond, Calif., are going a step further by arranging for some participants to stay with families whose children are attending a school of choice, he added.

In a related development, the department has released a new report in which a researcher cautions that successful choice plans require careful planning as well as safeguards to ensure students are treated equitably.

The 30-page report, "Progress, Problems, and Prospects of State Choice Plans," describes the types of choices parents can make under existing law in each of the 50 states.

It also summarizes the growing body of research on choice plans within public-school systems, offering a list of characteristics common to successful plans. These plans tend to include such elements as extensive parental outreach and counseling, admission procedures that encourage a broad mixture of student backgrounds and abilities, and opportunities for teachers to participate in designing programs, the report says.

"Failure to include these elements can increase rather than decrease the gaps in achievement and opportunity between affluent and low-income young people," says the report, written by Joe Nathan, senior fellow at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. Mr. Nathan has worked as a consultant for several states that have adopted or are consideringchoice legislation.

The report also recommends that the Education Department be more discriminating in the types of choice plans it supports through the magnet-school assistance program, saying that some of the plans funded previously have been "frequently criticized."

Copies of the report are available free of charge from the Planning and Evaluation Service, Office of Planning, Budget, and Evaluation, Education Department, 400 Maryland Ave., S.W., Room 3127, Washington, D.C. 20202-4244.

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