Choice Plan Splits Mayoral Candidates in Seattle

By William Snider — September 27, 1989 3 min read

Seattle’s new “controlled choice” student-assignment plan has emerged as a major issue in the city’s mayoral election, following the victory in last week’s nonpartisan primary of two candidates strongly aligned on opposing sides of the debate.

An initiative called “Save Our Schools” that could derail the plan is also scheduled to appear on the November ballot, after a state judge ruled against city officials who had sought to block the vote.

The controlled-choice plan, which took effect with the start of the current school year, is also coloring races for three seats on the city’s seven-member school board.

“It’s become a big issue--people feel really strongly about it,” said Mary Coltrane, president of the League of Women Voters of Seattle. Her group is opposing the ballot initiative, which was launched by critics of mandatory student busing.

“In my opinion, busing has become a scapegoat for broader frustrations with the way the school district is handling things,” Ms. Coltrane said.

Doug Jewett, the only one of 13 mayoral candidates to openly back the initiative, was the top vote getter in the primary. Currently city attorney, if elected he would become Seattle’s first Republican mayor in 20 years.

Mr. Jewett’s opponent in the gen4eral election will be Norman Rice, a Democratic city councilman who said he would use his candidacy to fight the initiative. Mr. Rice would be the first black mayor of Seattle, which is more than 75 percent white.

‘Stratified’ System?

The controlled-choice plan was developed to replace a 1977 desegregation plan that the district adopted voluntarily.

Students were given a broad array of choices under the old plan, but those who were not admitted to the optional programs received mandatory assignments to racially balanced neighborhood schools.

The new plan allows all students to indicate their preferences among schools within their local geographic “cluster.” But school officials are required to make final assignments that racially balance school enrollments.

A similar plan is being implemented in Boston, and more than a dozen smaller districts have used such plans for several years.

Opponents of the Seattle plan contend that mandatory busing of students whose preferences school officials are unable to accommodate is driving middle- and upper-middle-class families out of the district, leaving behind a higher proportion of disadvantaged students.

“Our school system is becoming economically stratified,” said Katherine Baxter, a parent who heads the Save Our Schools campaign.

She also criticized the district for imposing “capacity lids” on enrollments in certain popular programs and for including kindergarten pupils in the plan. The district has “taken a tremendous beating in public opinion for that,” she said.

School officials admit there have been problems in implementing the plan, but say it is the right approach for the district’s current needs.

“At this point the plan is only about two-and-a-half weeks old. We would like to have the opportunity to see how it is going to work,” said Patricia J. Paterson, a spokesman for the district.

Financial Incentives

The Save Our Schools initiative would not prohibit mandatory busing outright, but would instead create financial incentives for the district to adopt a parental-choice plan unrestricted by racial guidelines.

The initiative would also encourage the district to adopt a policy promising to evaluate the impact of proposed school closings on neighborhoods and families.

The measure would impose a one-year freeze on city appropriations for the school district if the district failed to adopt such policies by the end of this year.

Estimates of the city’s contribution to the district range from $200,000, if only money used for educational purposes is counted, to $2.5 million, if services such as day care provided in schools are included.

If the district adopted the policies called for in the initiative, the city would be required to set aside 6 percent of its sales-tax revenues for the schools, amounting to some $4.5 million for the current fiscal year.

Two percent of the tax would be designated for high-school improvements; the other 4 percent would be used to fund compensatory or enrichment programs in elementary schools that would become predominantly minority under the plan.

City officials challenged the initiative in state court, charging that it would illegally infringe on their budgetary powers. A judge ordered that the proposal be placed on the ballot, saying that any legal challenges would have to be filed after the election.

City and school officials have appealed the ruling to the Washington Supreme Court, which has agreed to hear the case this week.

A version of this article appeared in the September 27, 1989 edition of Education Week as Choice Plan Splits Mayoral Candidates in Seattle