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School Choice, Carnegie, and Alum Rock

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It's surely too soon to declare an end to education's most overheated argument--school choice--with the electoral defeat of President Bush, who pressed unsuccessfully for tax-supported vouchers for parents of private school children. The Democratic victory probably foreclosed any prospects for such national voucher legislation. But public school choice retains broad, bipartisan support and will surely seek new outlets. Most likely, the November election did not end the debate, but merely decentralized it.

Many of the biggest school districts, New York City, San Francisco, and Washington among them, are considering giving parents broad new rights to select among public schools. Thirteen states, including President Clinton's Arkansas, have adopted public school choice in varying degrees since Minnesota became the first in 1987. And while Colorado voters in November rejected a statewide voucher proposal, a similar measure may appear on the California ballot in 1994.

In a recently published report, "School Choice,'' the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching applauded the expansion of educational options among public schools. But our support was conditional: It extended only to plans whose aims are to strengthen public education generally, and to make excellent education accessible to every child regardless of location or family income. We were especially impressed by East Harlem, N.Y.; Montclair, N.J.; and Cambridge, Mass. Choice in these districts has invigorated teachers and administrators, inspired a wide range of educational options, and, significantly, has secured a priceless base of satisfaction among parents and students.

But we also concluded that the debate has exaggerated choice's potential as a reform tool while overlooking its costs and hazards. Faith has too often overshadowed fact in the choice discussion. Where it has succeeded, choice was invariably accompanied by ample funding, well-crafted systems of parent information, adequate transportation, and not least, school administrators and teachers creative and dedicated enough to craft excellent, distinctive programs.

All of this may be too obvious to belabor. Yet clearly a good deal of mythmaking has grown up around choice costs and accomplishments. To cite just a couple of examples, how often have the many accounts of Cambridge's successful choice program included the central facts that the district is spending more than $9,000 per pupil, and that two out of three children ride buses to school each day at very considerable public expense? And while East Harlem is undoubtedly a much-improved district since the first of 29 alternative middle schools opened in 1974, choice proponents, who surely know better, persist in using outdated statistics showing that 62 percent of that district's pupils are performing at or above grade level in reading skills. In fact, only 38.3 percent scored were at grade level in reading in 1992, ranking District 4 in the bottom third citywide. The point here is not to overemphasize standardized tests--least of all in New York, where such figures are notoriously prone to manipulation. Nor is it to denigrate either East Harlem or Cambridge, each of which can be justly proud of its achievements against great odds. It is merely to return some semblance of accuracy and perspective to the choice discussion.

We worried, too, about emerging inequities. From Milwaukee to Montclair, N.J., the cards in this complicated new game of choice are heavily stacked in favor of better-educated parents. In statewide schemes especially, choice effectively excludes most parents unable to drive their children to school, since most states and districts have shied from the expense of offering much transportation help. Not surprisingly, then, we found that fewer than 2 percent of pupils in the 13 states with choice systems are participating.

Even more alarming is the ruinous competition we discovered in states where choice pits poor districts against neighboring ones with higher per-pupil spending and smaller class sizes. Districts like Exira, Iowa; Gloucester and Hopkinton, Mass.; Motley, Minn.; and Batesville, Ark., are among some of the early casualties that have lost students and state aid to better-off neighbors.

The depressed city of Brockton, Mass., for example, has lost several hundred students, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in state aid, to its suburban neighbor, Avon. It's not hard to see why: Avon spends more than $10,000 per high school pupil, more than double what Brockton spends. What's happening here, and in similar situations elsewhere, has absolutely nothing to do with school reform. A lucky few students may benefit. But it is simply perverse to suggest that transferring state funds from Brockton to its better-off neighbor will somehow motivate the poorer district to improve.

Carnegie's revelations of the complications, limitations, and hazards of choice programs now in place did not, in any way, argue against the merits of giving parents and students more options. Happily, most reviewers grasped that distinction. Choice's most zealous champions, however, promptly accused Carnegie of trying to "build a case against choice.'' One writer, for example, went so far as to accuse our report of "mushing together ... paper-tiger state mandates,'' "genuine community choice movements,'' and "embryonic voucher programs,'' calling them all "choice,'' and then "pontificating'' that the results are mixed. Carnegie's sin, from that viewpoint, was to study choice as it operates in the real world, rather than as its proponents believe it might in some imaginary setting free of such inconveniences as politics, the U.S. Constitution, teacher unions, state education laws, federal laws protecting those with disabilities, and school-funding inequities.

Still, our findings might be vulnerable to a more serious challenge. Is it possible that the problems we described are fleeting--the product, perhaps, of a sour economic climate, or the short duration of these choice programs?

One possible source of answers is the choice experiment that took place some 20 years ago in Alum Rock, an elementary and middle school district within San Jose, Calif. The federally backed experiment was designed to test whether offering parents vouchers usable in any school, public or private, would lead to overall school improvement.

For a variety of political and economic reasons, the project never included private schools and it officially ended in 1976, after about four years. Still, Alum Rock remains one of the most carefully documented choice experiments, and has relevant lessons for the current debate. The RAND Corporation produced a six-volume study of the project and concluded:

  • There were "no appreciable differences'' between alternative and regular schools in student reading achievement, and parental choices were "unrelated to student achievement.''
  • Better-educated parents were most likely to evaluate school alternatives and understand the rules governing choice.
  • In selecting schools, academic quality and curriculum matters take a back seat to noninstructional considerations like convenience, the desire to keep siblings or friends together, or the ethnic or social composition of the school.

In short, RAND's findings concerning Alum Rock some 20 years ago seem to provide considerable historic vindication of Carnegie's findings about choice plans today.

Alum Rock even offers a postscript for those who still imagine that choice is a cheap ticket to excellence. Lawrence Aceves, the current superintendent, says a $700,000 transportation deficit may force an end soon to the district's policy of providing free bus rides to students who choose to attend schools outside their attendance zone. That would render choice moot for most students in this sprawling district of 45 square miles with little public transportation.

As Carnegie's president, Ernest L. Boyer, wrote in his foreword to "School Choice'': "It's time to move beyond the ideological confrontations and develop a larger, more inclusive strategy for school reform--one that focuses not on school location but on learning, not just on choice but on children.''

Lee Mitgang, a senior fellow of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, was the principal researcher for the foundation's study, "School Choice.''

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