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Teachers, Administrators Skeptical of Detroit Choice Plan

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The heads of teachers' and administrators' groups in Detroit are expressing ambivalence about school-based-management and parental-choice proposals that district officials are promoting nationally as a model for improving urban education.

The true test of the plan, the skeptics say, will come this week, when district officials tally the number of applications received from schools applying to participate in the local-empowerment plan by the June 18 deadline.

To be eligible, applications for school-site decisionmaking powers had to be approved by a school's principal, 75 percent of its teachers'-union members, 55 percent of the membership of groups representing the non-instructional staff and parents, and, in middle and high schools, 55 percent of student-council members.

John Elliot, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, said last week that "my own judgment is that the membership is not too enthusiastic" about the plan.

Mr. Elliot and Joseph L. Greene, president of the Organization of School Administrators and Supervisors, signed a memorandum of understanding with the president of the school board and the district's general superintendent this month in which they agreed to work to implement a proposed policy on empowerment and school choice.

The memorandum includes only a broad outline of the proposals. The administrators' group continues to disagree with district officials over the proposed details of the plan, which were unveiled shortly after the memorandum of understanding was signed.

In particular, Mr. Greene said he objects to a provision of the plan that would allow principals in empowered schools to be fired if their schools failed to meet specific improvement goals over three years.

"It is only an experiment--nobody here has ever done any empowerment and made it work," he said. "Principals are not going to lay their heads on the block if they believe it's not going to work."

District officials avoided a similar dispute with the teachers' group by dropping their proposals for merit pay for individual teachers or whole schools.

Instead, the latest version of the plan states that schools in certain categories can receive $20,000 grants if they reach specified performance goals. The money can be spent only on educational needs, including compensation for teachers who participate in training or assume extra duties.

Tied to 'Utilization'

Both Mr. Elliot and Mr. Greene expressed skepticism about the potential of the plan to improve the district's schools.

"No one has yet demonstrated that student achievement, attendance, or behavior has been improved" at schools governed at the building level, Mr. Elliot said.

The plan allows schools to apply for varying levels of empowerment, based on a variety of measures of performance that have been used to classify the schools as excellent, satisfactory, moderate-needs, or high-needs.

Currently, only one each of the district's 24 high schools and 50 middle schools have attained an excellent or satisfactory rating based on 1988-89 data included in the proposal.

Perhaps the most unusual feature of the plan is the pairing of school performance and a measure of the building's utilization of its student capacity to determine its eligibility for empowerment.

A school that was rated excellent but was utilized at less than 75 percent of capacity, for example, would lose its empowered status if it failed to serve an adequate enrollment at the end of three years.

The plan would allow empowered schools to attempt to fill unused classrooms by drawing students from outside their neighborhoods.

This part of the plan is apparently aimed at addressing the longstanding underutilization of many of the district's buildings, a problem that is widely acknowledged as a contributing factor in the district's perennial budget difficulties.

The school board voted this month to close 16 of its 259 schools, but officials have identified 18 others that currently serve less than half the number of students they were built for. Some local educators and consultants suggest the district needs to close between 50 and 100 schools to become an efficient operation.

Under the plan, schools that did not apply for empowerment, or gained and then lost that status, could ultimately be closed or reorganized.

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