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Indianapolis Board's Choice Plan Assailed as Political Ploy

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Facing both widespread calls for school choice and competition from a privately funded voucher program, the board of the Indianapolis Public Schools has approved a "controlled'' choice plan.

However, the plan appears to have riled as many critics as it quieted, as teachers' union officials and several community leaders last week denounced it as hastily conceived political ploy.

Some board members who had approved the proposal sought to distance themselves from it last week, and questioned whether a federal judge would clear the way for its implementation by altering a desegregation order governing attendance patterns in the district.

"This, from my point of view, was kind of a political move by the I.P.S. board,'' said the Rev. Thomas L. Brown, a board member. "Nobody really understands what it is. It really hasn't been explained.''

Backers of the proposal, meanwhile, asserted that it is far too early to pass judgment of the plan, which may change considerably as a result of public comment.

"All we are doing is agreeing to start a process and go to a judge,'' said Richard W. Guthrie, who was acting board president in the absence of Mary E. Busch when the choice proposal was passed.

The framework of the plan, as approved by all six of the board members present last month, calls for the district to be divided into three contiguous regions, each with a minority composition much like that of the district as a whole.

District officials would identify 8 to 10 "select'' elementary schools as well as several magnet schools in each region from which students' parents could choose. The district would provide students with transportation to whichever school picked.

Middle-school students could attend any school within their region or a school outside their region if able to provide their own transportation. High-school students would be provided transportation to attend any school in the district.

Each school will be encouraged to work with parents, staff members, and the community to develop an attractive program, and will be required to have a minority enrollment within 15 percent of the regional average.

The plan also calls for mechanisms to ensure that parents make informed choices and that all students can benefit from the choice program.

A 'Hasty Response'?

Mr. Guthrie said school officials and the board conceived of the choice plan at a retreat held last fall and approved the framework of the plan late last month because "there has been a tremendous clamoring for it within the community.''

"It is coming from everywhere,'' Mr. Guthrie said, noting that the board had heard community activists calling for choice for the past 18 months.

But critics asserted that the plan appeared to be a hasty response to two other developments: the creation, last August, of a privately funded voucher plan that drew national attention, and pledges by two mayoral candidates in last fall's election to use choice programs to improve the city's schools.

"It can't be a coincidence that, two months after our program started, the I.P.S. school board went into a very hurried retreat and came out promoting the idea of a choice plan,'' said Timothy Ehrgott, executive director of the Educational Choice Charitable Trust. That organization was established by the Golden Rule Insurance Company, which is headquartered in the city, to cover up to half the tuition tab of underprivileged Indianapolis children seeking to enroll in private or parochial schools. (See Education Week, Sept. 4, 1991.)

"That was one of the reasons we started this,'' Mr. Ehrgott said. "To prod the public school system to change.''

Mr. Brown, the board member, last week asserted that Shirl E. Gilbert 2nd, superintendent of the Indianapolis schools, brought the plan before them "in a very hurried fashion'' during the height of the mayoral race.

"We didn't have 36 hours to think through this thing. We just took the bait,'' said Mr. Brown, who endorsed parts of the plan but last week expressed regrets he had not done more to oppose it.

"It was really a plan to circumvent any of the political candidates from getting credit for this,'' Mr. Brown said. "It had no intended long-range results.''

The leadership of the Indianapolis Education Association, whose members have been working without a contract since fall and had no role in devising the choice plan, criticized the proposal as poorly researched and likely to create further disarray and accelerate the departure of students from the district.

The controlled choice plan was warmly received, however, by Thomas W. Binford, president of Community Leaders Allied for Superior Schools, which represents about 45 of the larger employers and professional organizations in the city.

"I think it is going in the right direction,'' Mr. Binford said last week. "I was really surprised at the sophistication of the program. I really think they touched the bases that need to be touched.''

Fredrick L. Rice, general counsel for the school system, said the district plans this month to bring its choice proposal before the federal district court which, since 1981, has required some district students to be bused from various attendance zones for the sake of racial balance.

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