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Cavazos Emphasizes Choice Initiative Not at Odds With Local SchoolControl

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Richmond, Calif.--In an attempt to defuse criticism of his parental-choice initiative, Secretary of Education Lauro F. Cavazos last week emphasized that the concept does not infringe on local control of public schools.

Further, the Secretary stressed, his efforts to promote the initiative have not detracted from the Education Department's efforts in other areas.

Critics have assailed Mr. Cavazos at each of the five regional strategy meetings on choice. And his remarks here at the final session indicated that he is concerned about the criticism, but that he has not wavered in his support for the concept.

"I want to make this point clearly, for the record, so that everybody understands it," he said with uncharacteristic verve. "The Department of Education has absolutely no intention, or authority, to impose academic choice, or any of the other restructuring strategies proposed, on any state or local school system."

"The choice must be yours," he told the nearly 1,000 educators, policymakers, and others at the meeting.

"All that we're doing is giving leadership to the ideas that are designed to help us erase our educational deficit," he said. "If we did not do that ... we would not be doing our jobs."

Critics of Choice

Much of the criticism has come from Representative Augustus F. Hawkins, the California Democrat who chairs the House Education and Labor Committee, whose staff members have voiced their objections at each of the five meetings.

The most frequent criticism has been that the choice meetings have reduced the department's ability to implement and enforce federal laws, including the Hawkins-Stafford4School Improvement Act of 1988.

In response, Mr. Cavazos vowed that the department "will fully meet the intentions of Congress relative to all, all of the legislative acts that have been passed in the area of education."

Mr. Cavazos also responded to frequently voiced fears that choicecould hurt desegregation efforts when he said that "neither the President nor I would support this if we thought that were the case."

Another concern raised by critics--that disadvantaged families would be unprepared or unable to benefit from choosing schools--was addressed by the selection of meeting sites where choice plans have had a positive impact on a broad range of urban students.

Some 65 percent of the nearly 30,000 students served by the Richmond Unified School District in suburban San Francisco, for instance, are members of minority groups, and many are from immigrant families that speak one of almost 70 different languages and dialects.

And together with East Harlem, N.Y.--site of the first regional strategy meeting--the Richmond choice plan is considered one of the most dramatic and successful examples of local choice plans in action, Education Department officials said.

Richmond's experience "demonstrates that choice can be implemented quickly and effectively," said John D. Klenk, director of the Secretary's choice initiative.

Asked to assess the impact of the five regional meetings, SecretaryCavazos said in an interview that the sessions had been successful in sparking a national debate on school restructuring.

Building a Coalition

"What I'm trying to do is to force the issue, if you really want to get right down to it," he said. "Over the past year, we've built a coalition of people--teachers and parents and business people and students and government officials--who recognize the urgent need to restructure our schools."

Mr. Cavazos added: "I am surprised by the reaction of some people to the fact that the Department of Education would even carry out meetings on choice, saying, 'You shouldn't be doing those kinds of things."'

"That surprised me," he said, "because I saw it clearly within the purview of my job to try to carry forth the President's message in areas of education."

Expanding on his earlier statements that choice should be linked with school-based management, the Secretary said it is "critical" that the strategies be paired.

"If you don't have site-based management," he said, "it really doesn't give you much reason to have choice."

"I see choice as a mechanism for creating parent access to school systems ... [and] giving parents and teachers more say about the educational process," he said. "You probably will get a certain amount of competition, but that should not be the thrust."

President Bush gave a similar message in videotaped remarks delivered at the beginning of the conference.

"Choice and school-based management are needed because they they will liberate our educators and school boards to create improved and distinctive schools," the President said.

"These reforms will free our schools from bland conformity, and will allow them to build on the strengths of America's diversity," he added.

Mr. Klenk said the Education Department's office of educational research and improvement plans to compile a report on the choice meetings detailing the lessons learned from existing plans.

He said the department will conduct research on the effects of current choice plans and provide assistance to states and districts considering adopting such measures.

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