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Doors Closing in Wake of Texas Choice Law

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Just a few months after Texas joined such pioneering states as Minnesota and Massachusetts in enacting a statewide public-school-choice policy, its program is already being called a failure.

The problem is that while a new law allows students in low-rated public schools to transfer to another public school, districts can decline to participate. And many parents searching for better schools outside their districts have found that "choice" does not necessarily mean access.

In Fort Worth, one mother who wanted her son to attend a school in the Eagle Mountain-Saginaw district said she received an abrupt response from the district's superintendent. "He said, 'If we take one in, we have to take them all in,"' recalled the mother, who asked not to be identified.

Almost all of the approximately 400 Texas parents who have requested transfers for their children since the summer have been turned down, state officials say.

Other states with similar policies have avoided that particular pitfall.

Minnesota became the first state to create an open-enrollment system in 1985, and the number of students attending schools outside their home districts now exceeds 17,000.

Some districts recently have begun to refuse students wishing to transfer into their schools. Participation is mandatory in Minnesota--with exceptions for districts under desegregation orders--and Barbara Zohn, an enrollment-options specialist for the Minnesota Department of Education, said some districts around the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul have simply become too crowded to accept more students.

In Massachusetts, 86 out of 351 districts have voted to accept transfer students since an open-enrollment plan was enacted in 1991, said Alan Safran, the spokesman for Commissioner of Education Robert Antonucci, and are "nowhere near capacity."

In that state, the downside of open enrollment has not been a lack of choices, but the financial consequences for districts that lost many students--and state aid equal to per-pupil expenditures in the receiving district. (See Education Week, Nov. 27, 1991.)

No Takers

But in Texas, districts are apparently reluctant to open themselves for transfers, even though the law calls for some state and local funding to move with a transferring student.

Julie Thannum, the spokeswoman for the 5,445-student Eagle Mountain-Saginaw district, said it simply does not have any room. "We are growing by about 250 students per year," she said. "We projected a 4 percent increase over last year, and on some campuses it is 10 percent."

But school-choice advocates contend that many districts are using that argument as an excuse to obscure their real reasons for refusing to participate.

"Districts have illegitimate fears that they'll be swamped with low-performing students just because students come from low-performing schools," said Allan Parker, a lawyer for the Texas Justice Foundation, a San Antonio-based legal-advocacy group.

Students are eligible if their school is rated "low performing" by the state, or had a passing rate of less than 50 percent on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills in any of the past three school years. More than 1,000 of the state's 6,000 schools qualify.

The mother from Fort Worth said her 4th grader was the only one in his class to earn a passing score on the state test last year.

"I feel like they're discriminating against my child, and I'm going to do whatever I can to get him in," she said.

She and Mr. Parker were scheduled to meet with the Eagle Mountain-Saginaw school board this week to present their case.

"We're hoping the school boards will be a little more responsive to the needs of the children than the bureaucrats," said Mr. Parker, who is also representing several other parents making similar complaints against other districts.

Phony Choice?

That might be of interest to lawmakers in Michigan, where an open-enrollment bill was approved by the Senate's education committee last week.

Michigan students have long been able to transfer between districts. Since 1982, they have needed the consent of their home districts, a stipulation that was prompted by a wave of cross-district athletic recruiting. Choice advocates say athletic regulations now prevent that kind of abuse.

Under Sen. Bill Schuette's proposal, districts would lose their veto over departures, and state aid would follow a student to the district of his or her choice--as it does in most open-enrollment states--but districts would be allowed to opt out of receiving transfers.

While both backers and opponents say the bill will probably become law, some wonder whether it would trigger any change at all.

Phil Ginotti, an aide to Mr. Schuette, said the senator believes in local control and thought districts should be able to decide whether to accept transfers.

"You would think that prudent management of your district would tell you that if you've got 10 vacant seats, you should take students from another district," he said.

But Rep. James G. Agee, a retired school superintendent, predicted that wealthy districts would not accept transfer students. Even if they did, he said, poor students would not be able to afford the transportation costs.

"This bill is just a fake, phony choice," he said. "Because, really, it's schools choosing students rather than students choosing schools."

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