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Boston Official's Private-School Choice Proposal Sparks Furor

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The executive secretary of the Boston School Committee has touched off a political furor by proposing that the school system give parents money for tuition at their choice of public or private schools if it fails to successfully educate their children after three years.

Robert Consalvo, who was appointed to his position by Mayor Raymond L. Flynn, said that his plan for a "guaranteed quality public education'' would give schools incentives to improve and would strengthen parents' confidence in the system.

Mr. Consalvo said last week that the feedback he had received had been "generally positive. People are saying it's stimulating them to think about new ways in which to reform the schools.''

But critics charged that by proposing a policy initiative, Mr. Consalvo was undermining Superintendent Lois Harrison-Jones. They said his plan confirmed their fears that the newly appointed school committee is unduly influenced by the Mayor.

"Clearly, Bob Consalvo has made the whole concept of an independent school committee a farce,'' said Louis Elisa, the president of the Boston chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Mr. Consalvo, who has a doctorate in education, said he proposed the idea on his own and had not discussed it with the Mayor. He also rejected the suggestion that it was inappropriate for him to float such proposals.

"Tragically,'' he said, "too many people have been quiet for too long, while the system has failed the children. I can't be a party to that.''

Test Scores Released

The controversy was heightened last week when Mr. Consalvo released preliminary standardized-test results that indicate scores in reading and mathematics have declined in many of the city's high schools. He criticized the superintendent for what he said was a failure to move quickly to address the problems.

Larry W. Faison, the spokesman for the school department, said the scores indicate that there is a "lot of work to be done.''

"We are committed to raising the test scores,'' he said. "That is what the superintendent has been saying all year long.''

Ms. Harrison-Jones plans this month to release systemwide standards that all schools will be expected to meet, along with a plan for intervening in failing schools.

"Mr. Consalvo, in his position, is very much aware of those standards and those plans,'' Mr. Faison said.
The scores released by Mr. Consalvo, the spokesman added, were drawn from a batch of indicators that are to be released later this month. The information shows progress in some areas, he said, noting that the dropout rate in Boston has declined to a 15-year low.

Tuition Support

As for the concept of providing tuition scholarships, Mr. Faison said the school department has a policy against "providing public school dollars for private schools.''

The notion also drew criticism from Paula Georges, the executive director of the Citywide Educational Coalition, a nonpartisan watchdog group.

"I don't see anything in the plan that would provide a serious way in which the schools could be helped to get better,'' she said.

Under Mr. Consalvo's school-guarantee plan, if students who attended school regularly for three years failed to perform at specified levels, their families would be eligible to receive between 25 percent and 75 percent of the per-pupil spending in Boston to pay for tuition at a private school. They also could opt to transfer to another Boston public school.

The amount of support a family received would be based on its income.

If the student succeeded after three years in a new school, the tuition support would continue. If he did not, parents could return the child to Boston public schools or pay tuition on their own.

Unlike other school-choice plans, Mr. Consalvo said, his idea would not financially punish schools that lost students, because they would not lose all the per-pupil funding for students who left the school.

Schools that lost more than 5 percent of their students in a year or 10 percent in three years would be targeted for intervention or possible closure under the proposal.

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