Miami-Dade Will Launch Choice Plan
The Miami-Dade County district plans to let parents choose which schools their children attend, a frank acknowledgment that the system must compete with charter schools and voucher programs that have siphoned off more than 10,000 students this year.
The change, approved on Oct. 23 when the school board accepted a five-year, $14.6 million federal grant to support its implementation, means that the 365,000-student Florida district will phase out its long-standing practice of requiring children to attend their neighborhood schools. The district will divide itself into six to eight zones and allow parents to choose any schools within their zones.
After studying possible designs for the choice plan, and obtaining community reaction, district leaders hope to put the plan into practice in stages, beginning with the 2003-04 school year.
Superintendent Merrett R. Stierheim hailed the approach as "the wave of the future," a reflection of prevailing political sentiment, and a way to help the district retain students while giving parents more of what they want.
"I am a fervent believer in public education being the backbone of our way of life, and I'm going to be zealous in trying to protect it," he said last week. "But I'm also pragmatic enough to realize that the issue of choice and competition is here to stay. Why not give that choice to our parents and students within our public school system?"
While education watchers have seen signs that public school districts are reacting to competition from charter schools and vouchers, the response by the nation's fourth-largest district is unusually forthright.
Stemming a Loss
Miami-Dade officials hope to address a number of problems by expanding choice. Prime among them is ensuring that the district's schools are worth choosing when parents have other options.
Options for Students
The following information, provided by Florida's Miami-Dade County schools, shows various choices for schooling in the 365,000-student district
This year, 7,500 students attend 25 charter schools in the district, and 330 are using state-financed vouchers to leave failing public schools for private ones, according to district figures. Another 3,500 are attending private schools through a program, in effect for the first time this year, that gives companies tax credits for donating to nonprofit organizations that finance such scholarships.
The district anticipates that the charter movement will grow; 34 applications are pending for new charter schools in the district. That group of schools could open during the next four years and enroll 26,500 additional students. Since nonprofit entities operate charter schools, which are public but largely independent, state education money follows those students. Mr. Stierheim estimated the loss of school funding for the current 7,500 charter school students at $37.5 million, out of an operating budget of $2.4 billion.
As they plan a system of choice, district leaders hope to offer attractive options that will give parents a reason to keep their children—and their accompanying tax dollars—in district schools. Miami-Dade officials hope to offer more magnet programs and more schools with special themes. They also hope to expand, from four, the district's "satellite learning centers," schools located at businesses so children study at their parents' places of work.
The district is entering its sixth year of operating what is called a controlled- choice system in 14 schools, and parents have given the program high marks, said Helen Blanch, the executive director of the division of schools of choice. Some aspects of that plan could be replicated in designing the larger choice system, which is funded with a grant authorized under the "No Child Left Behind" Act of 2001.
District leaders believe the full-district choice plan could save money on transportation. The sprawling district spends $14 million a year to transport 10,000 of its magnet school students, some of whom spend an hour or more on the bus each way, said Mercedes Toural, the associate superintendent for education.
Offering more magnet programs, closer to students' homes, will make such programs available to more students as well as save several million dollars a year in busing, Superintendent Stierheim said.
While money is a perennial worry for school districts, it is a particularly intense concern now in Miami-Dade County, which has been battered by an ongoing fiscal crisis. Its health-insurance costs, for example, are skyrocketing.
And while it is fast-growing, the district enrolled 7,000 fewer students this school year than it had projected. The drop—which officials attribute to the new corporate scholarship program, a high local unemployment rate, and a falloff in immigration after the terrorist attacks last year—is being felt in the pocketbook, since less enrollment means less state aid.
"It's a disaster, financially," said Sonja Gaetjens, who tracks demographic changes as the district's senior research analyst.
Mr. Stierheim and his leadership team say that a successful program of intradistrict choice cannot insulate the district from the financial repercussions of dips in immigration rates or a sluggish economy. But it can play a pivotal role in hanging on to families, they said, and it is their tax dollars that enable the district to function.
How much of a role the actual performance of Miami- Dade schools will play in a choice system is yet to be seen. Like most urban districts, it boasts of pockets of high achievement, but contends with too many areas of low achievement. Its state test scores are rising in some areas, and Florida graded twice as many of Miami-Dade's schools A or B in 2002 as it did in 2001. But 14 of its schools were graded F, when none had been the year before.
Patrick J. Heffernan, the president of Miami-based Floridians for School Choice, said history shows that an overwhelming majority of parents, offered a choice of schools, stick with the ones in their neighborhoods. A school's academic performance is only one of a number of other factors that influence such decisions, he said, noting that disciplinary effectiveness, safety, and geographic convenience to work or home also figure in.
"The parents' question tends to be, 'How is my child doing?' as opposed to, 'How well are the public schools performing?'" Mr. Heffernan said. "The decision tends to be based on intimate, personal, individual reasons rather than global assessments."
He predicted that only a minority of Miami-Dade parents would opt for out-of-neighborhood schools once a districtwide choice plan is in place. As an illustration, he pointed to what happened in Pensacola in 1999- 2000, when state-financed vouchers were offered to 840 families in two failing schools there. Only 58 families sent their children to private schools, and 80 transferred children to other public schools.
"It shows that school choice is here, and that there's nothing to worry about," Mr. Heffernan said.
Vol. 22, Issue 10, Pages 1,11