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A Choice Collection

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A dozen years ago, education officials in San Antonio created a school choice program aimed at improving learning for Hispanic students. Toward that end, they opened two thematic middle schools and invited students to apply. Combining language education with cultural teaching, the two programs now have solid academic reputations and support from parents whose children attend them. But only students with strong academic records can enroll. And the youngsters who do tend to come from families least in need of extra educational opportunity--relatively affluent families with college-educated parents.

Miles away, in Montgomery County, Md., school officials launched a popular magnet school program a few years earlier to help integrate schools more fully. But the schools that parents pick do little to advance that goal. Indeed, parents tend to ask for schools where the students' families make about the same amount of money as they do and where the students come from the same racial and ethnic backgrounds. That puts administrators in the hard-to-defend position of having to deny the first choices of as many as one-fifth of the parents just to keep schools racially balanced.

And in Milwaukee, low-income parents are enthusiastic about a voucher program that provides them with $2,927 in public funds that they can use to send their children to private, nonsectarian schools. But the schools these children choose are highly segregated. And, for the most part, students are making no more academic progress in their new schools than they did in their old ones.

These are a handful of the findings from a soon-to-be-released collection of nine papers on school choice. Taken together, the editors of the collection say, the evaluations raise "warning flags'' about the nation's growing school choice movement. "School choice advocates place great faith in the market model, assuming that parents will be good shoppers and move their children into higher-quality, more responsive schools,'' says Bruce Fuller, a Harvard University assistant professor who co-directed the project. "But it's the slightly more

advantaged, better-educated, and informed parents who are shopping. Choice advocates need to recognize that many students are left behind in low-quality schools. Unregulated choice programs unfairly penalize children whose parents are not savvy educational consumers.''

The papers, which grew out of a seminar held at Harvard two years ago, are not scheduled to be published by Teachers College Press until later this winter. But in the politically volatile world of school choice, the findings have already sparked controversy. Critics charge, for example, that the collection omits other studies that paint a brighter picture of choice. They also argue that the contributors ignore the fact that choice already exists for a privileged few. "If government doesn't let poor and moderate-income families have choices, then only rich people have choices,'' says Joe Nathan, director of the Humphrey Institute's Center for School Change in Minneapolis.

Southern conservatives first advocated school choice as a means of thwarting court-ordered desegregation efforts in the 1960s. While studies on the issue have been around almost as long, there are not a lot of them. "It struck us that there was a scarcity of evidence on who was actually participating in choice,'' says Fuller, who edited the collection with fellow Harvard professors Richard Elmore and Gary Orfield. "So we wanted to assemble the best empirical work on the issue.''

The nine papers present a more varied and complex side to school choice than either critic or champion might imagine. For example, one study shows that students in the Milwaukee voucher program did not make great academic strides, but another suggests that students in the San Antonio programs did. "One of our major points is that the structure of these programs is highly variable, and the demographic conditions into which these programs are dropped are equally diverse,'' Fuller says. "You've got to look and see how the program interacts with the demographic and economic makeup of the community.''

Nonetheless, the concern that school choice may deepen the existing rifts in American society is a strong thread running through several studies. In San Antonio, for example, parents who sought out the multilingual programs were more than twice as likely as parents who did not to have attended college, according to Valerie Martinez-Ebers, an assistant professor of political science at the University of North Texas. What's more, the students who actually enrolled in the program were more than twice as likely as either those who were turned down or those who did not apply to come from families with annual incomes of more than $35,000.

Jeffrey Henig's study of Montgomery County revealed a different tendency. A few of the county's more distinctive magnet schools did attract both black and white students. But for the most part, white students from higher-income families tended to request transfers into mainly white schools in higher-income neighborhoods, while students from minority families were more likely to ask for mainly nonwhite schools in lower-income areas. If school officials had not taken a strong hand in maintaining racial balance in the schools, the George Washington University researcher says, many of the county's schools would have become more segregated. "Choice may exacerbate, rather than ameliorate, racial segregation,'' Henig says. "And the choice movement today, unfortunately, seems to be turning away from managed programs.''

In Milwaukee, the voucher program did serve the families it was intended to serve--the poorest and lowest-achieving students. But, then, program planners placed strict income limits on participation. Still, after four years, those students were doing no better academically than their public school counterparts, according to John Witte, the University of Wisconsin political science professor who headed up the evaluation there. "We've concluded that the differences are nil,'' he says. (Others contest those findings.) Witte and his colleagues did discover one key difference between the students who chose the private schools and those who stayed behind: Their mothers were more involved in their schooling.

Amy Stuart Wells, a researcher at the University of California at Los Angeles, set her sights on a choice plan in St. Louis that allowed inner-city students to attend predominantly white suburban schools. She looked at three groups of urban students: those who chose to transfer to a suburban school; those who stayed behind; and those who initially took part in the program but later returned to their city schools.

Like the Milwaukee transfer students, the St. Louis students who chose suburban schools were prodded to go by their parents. Parents did not, however, spend a lot of time shopping for the best choice. They figured any suburban school--and they had 120 to choose from--could provide a better education than their children were getting. The students who later returned to their old schools did so for a variety of reasons. Some were "pushed out'' because of discipline problems. Others complained of the added workload. Most, however, said they had been made to feel uncomfortable in the predominantly white environments. "A lot of very white and wealthy districts don't really want black and inner-city kids in their schools,'' Wells says. "And that's a reality that has a lot of implications for who chooses and the schools they attend.''

Such findings, Fuller suggests, highlight the role that culture plays in the decisions that parents and children make about the schools they go to. "There's a real yearning among parents to pull back into their own cultural milieu,'' he says. This, the editors of the Harvard papers argue, has serious implications for the choice movement. "We're not saying every choice program in the United States is going to yield unequal effects and increased stratification,'' Fuller says. "But it's incumbent upon designers to demonstrate how they're going to minimize the inequities.''

Critics do not completely disagree. "I think there is a component of any choice situation that could give rise to inequities,'' says Terry Moe, a Stanford University political science professor whose 1990 book with John Chubb, Politics, Markets, and America's Schools, intensified the school choice debate. "But it's not something that should be attributed to choice per se. It's a design problem.''

"If you claim there are grounds for saying choice is a good thing to do, then it's worthwhile to look for ways to deal with program flaws,'' says Mary Anne Raywid, a Hofstra University education professor. "If you're claiming there's no evidence it's effective, then you don't have to deal with that.'' The Harvard collection, she points out, failed to include studies of choice programs in Cambridge, Mass., Harlem's Community School District 4, and other places where students are making academic gains. By so doing, she adds, the editors took the easy way out and relieved themselves of the responsibility of having to offer solutions for the problems they found.

For his part, Fuller says the project's aim is simply to broaden the debate over school choice. Researchers on both sides promise that it won't be the last word on the subject.

--Debra Viadero

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