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Choice Is Fine, But Don't Forget Bottom Line, Parents Say

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New York City--When Secretary of Education Lauro F. Cavazos came to the East Harlem neighborhood known as "El Barrio" to extol the virtues of the local schools, he faced a passel of parents who wanted to know why his department did not back up its praise with more money.

"I don't want to read [President Bush's] lips; I don't want to see a thousand lights," one parent said. "I want to see my young people getting ready for my future when I hit that rocking chair. What we need is money."

Parent after parent repeated a similar litany at an open forum during last week's meeting on choice.

The school auditorium where the meeting was held exploded with applause when another parent said, "The bottom line to choice is money."

"You cannot give lip service to schools of choice," he added, "unless you provide money to run" them.

State and local officials who attended the parents' night, which preceded the main conference, were not spared from the tongue lashings, which were sometimes delivered in Spanish.

The citations of New York City's Community District 4 as a model in reform reports "is nice, very nice; we greet everybody from around the country," said Ray Rivera, a parent with two children at a district school.

"But we want you to understand," he said, "those that want to duplicate this model in other parts of the country, that we didn't do this because of the support, we did it in spite of the support."

The outbursts reflected a growing fear among parents and district officials that a series of circumstances--including budget cuts and the suspension without pay of Carlos Medina, the district's superintendent, for the past 10 months--has jeopardized the programs that have made the district famous.

'Why Have You Taken So Long?'

One parent asked Robert F. Wagner, president of the New York City school board: "If you're so interested in maintaining the integrity and the good education of District 4, why have you taken so long in resolving the problem of our superintendent?"

Mr. Medina was one of several school officials charged with violating central-board regulations in last year's community school-board scandals, but he claims that he was the only one suspended without pay.

"Creative noncompliance" is necessary to run an effective district in New York City, he said, acknowledging that he sometimes violated board rules. The charges are scheduled to be ruled on by Nov. 1, and he expects to be reinstated.

But Mr. Medina's absence has allowed forces hostile to the district's alternative schools to assume power, he and several current and former officials in the district have charged.

The district also faces a budget deficit estimated at $500,000 by local officials and $2.5 million by the city board's budget officials.

Mr. Wagner would not provide assurances on Mr. Medina's fate, but after the open forum he pledged to parents the central board's help in ensuring that the district's budget problems would not harm its programs.

Cavazos Questioned

Secretary Cavazos, for his part, was asked why the district's proposal for a federal Magnet Schools Assistance Grant was denied this year for the first time in five years.

Education Department officials pointed out that peer reviewers rank the magnet grants, and that District 4's application had fallen below the cutoff score for funding.

"Clearly all of us believe District 4 is a glowing example," said Ted Sanders, Undersecretary of Education. The decision not to fund the district's proposal "affirms that we don't tamper around with the peer-review process," he said.

"The irony is that we're celebrating choice at a time when we're in a crisis in this district," Mr. Rivera said. "Instead of increased support, we're getting less support."

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