Convergence On Choice

February 01, 1990 9 min read
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The convergence of both the Administration and the union on the rationale for choice could have major ramifications for the debate this year--a debate that is likely to intensify as more and more choice advocates attempt to press their agenda in the nation’s legislative bodies. One expert expects as many as 40 states to face various choice proposals in this year’s legislative sessions, and more than half of those states have commissioned reports or held hearings in preparation for the debate.

Since then-President-elect George Bush announced his enthusiastic support for parental choice at a White House conference in January of last year, the concept has won a growing number of adherents in state capitals and local school districts. In his speech, Bush disarmed some of the opposition to choice by rejecting the Reagan Administration’s position that private schools be included in such plans.

Secretary Cavazos has done his best to rally policymakers, parents, and educators to the cause of choice by personally presiding over five regional strategy meetings at which he urged the several thousand participants to agitate for it in their home communities. At the meetings, Cavazos revealed a fundamental shift in the Administration’s strategy--a shift with as much potential to build support for the concept as the President’s call to limit choice plans to public schools.

Instead of extolling the benefits of introducing market forces into public education, as many choice advocates do, the Secretary said that choice should be used as a tool to empower not only parents, but also teachers and other educators. It is, he insisted, an essential element--together with school-based management--in school restructuring.

In taking this position, the Secretary has allied the Bush Administration with the growing minority of educators who support choice because they believe it complements--and indeed is a necessary part of--their efforts to create distinctive schools designed to meet the needs of a specific group of students. For example, Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, argues that if teachers want the authority to make more decisions in their schools, they must allow parents and students the right to accept or reject those decisions through their choice of schools.

Choice advocates who share that view cite it as the raison d’etre for one of the nation’s most highly acclaimed choice plans: New York City’s Community School District 4, which turned around the academic fortunes of many students living in East Harlem, one of the nation’s poorest urban neighborhoods.

Searching in the early 1970’s for a way to reverse the abysmal performance of the Harlem district, thensuperintendent Anthony Alvarado led the creation of three alternative schools: one for the so-called troublemakers, one for gifted and talented students, and one for those inclined toward the performing arts.

As the alternative schools demonstrated success with students that the traditional schools had difficulty reaching, Alvarado encouraged teachers to come forward with their own ideas for new schools, and gave many of them the space, resources, and freedom to make their dreams a reality.

By the early 1980’s, the district had so many alternative schools at the junior high level--many operating on a single floor or wing of a building-- that officials began requiring all parents and students to choose from among the schools, rather than automatically assigning them to ones near their home.

Currently, the district operates some 50 semi-autonomous schools in its 20 buildings, and annually attracts more than 1,000 students from other parts of the city where the educational offerings are not nearly as diverse or successful.

The district’s dramatic improvements in test scores, student attendance, and other indicators of achievement cannot be attributed solely to choice, as the participants willingly acknowledge. Smaller, more personalized schools, the variety of new teaching methods and curriculum, and a strategy of “creative noncompliance’’ with bureaucratic regulations have also improved the learning environment in the district, they say.

“The big thing [Alvarado] introduced here was teachers’ choice, not parental choice,’' says Deborah Meier, a teacher who built a national reputation after reluctantly accepting Alvarado’s invitation to create and lead one of the district’s first three alternative schools.

The success of District 4 has obviously had a strong impact on Secretary Cavazos; he chose it as the site for his first regional meeting, where he began to build the Administration’s case for choice on the grounds that it will empower teachers.

“Schools of choice must have schoolbased management,’' Cavazos said at that meeting. “This would inject vitality into the education system...[because] it encourages principals and teachers to become entrepreneurs and restructure their curriculum and standards, it involves parents, and it also encourages students to become learners with options that capture and direct their potential.’'

The terms “competition’’ and “market forces’’ were notably absent from the Secretary’s remarks at each of the five meetings. Asked at the final meeting, in Richmond, Calif., to clarify his views on the competitive aspects of choice, Cavazos said, “You probably will get a certain amount of competition, but that should not be the thrust.’'

Cavazos’ conversion to choice as a “critical’’ complement to teacher empowerment came at a time when the NEA, the nation’s largest teachers’ union, was grappling with the fallout from the debate on choice at its national convention last summer, where delegates passed a resolution widely perceived as a blanket condemnation of most forms of school choice.

The NEA leadership, which had tried unsuccessfully to get delegates to approve a more flexible and affirmative policy on the issue, has in the past few months been articulating a view remarkably similar to that of Secretary Cavazos.

NEA President Keith Geiger said in a recent newspaper column, “To my mind, all parents should be able to choose which quality school programs best meet the needs of their children.’'

“We think that there’s a merging of the two positions,’' says Doug Tuthill, a teacher of philosophy at St. Petersburg (Fla.) High School and a member of the NEA’s instructional and professional development committee. “If [Cavazos] completely abandons the idea that schools have to compete, he will be very close to the NEA’s position.’'

It is the prospect of unbridled competition among public schools that has led many teachers to oppose openenrollment plans. Opponents argue that choice programs could have dire consequences for teachers and schools, by making poor schools poorer, hurting the students who need the most help, and “resegregating’’ public education.

Joe Nathan, a member of President Bush’s educational policy advisory panel and author of Public Schools By Choice, a book that explores many of the concept’s thornier issues, says there are many reasons for the widespread opposition to choice found among educators. Many teachers, he says, feel “bitter and frustrated’’ because of their experiences with “elitist’’ choice plans under which school districts concentrate their resources and energy on creating a few good schools that then “cream off’’ the district’s best and brightest students. They also argue that teacher empowerment is not necessarily a consequence of choice: Some plans have been implemented in a top-down manner that has excluded teachers from the debate and provided no time or resources for them to develop distinctive schools.

Other educators have a “deep mistrust of some of the proponents of public school choice,’' many of whom have advocated government support of private schools, says Nathan.

And then, he notes, there is the normal resistance to change: “Some teachers were attracted to education because it is secure, and choice undermines that security. And I suppose many teachers have not had the experience of helping create a distinctive school, and not having that experience, they don’t understand it.’' As a young teacher in the early 1970’s, Nathan became a convert to choice after helping to create the St. Paul Open School, a place where school-based management and innovative educational ideas have thrived to this day.

Somewhat ironically, it is their abandonment of the long-cherished American ideal of the common school that brings Cavazos and NEA leaders closer together. They, like more and more educators, have come to realize that there is no “one best way’’ to educate all students--that schools should adapt to meet the needs of a student population that has a wide array of individual talents and comes from increasingly diverse backgrounds.

Though the teachers’ unions and the Administration appear to be coming together on a broad rationale for choice, they remain deeply divided on the practical issues of how and by whom choice should be implemented.

“Choice’’ has become an umbrella term for a bewildering array of programs, including statewide openenrollment, opportunities for high school students to take tuition-free courses at colleges and universities, magnet schools for desegregation purposes, and alternative schools based on nontraditional curricula and teaching methods.

As educators and policymakers move from the philosophical debate to practical tasks of developing real-life choice programs, they will surely discover that the simple idea of allowing parents to choose schools is fraught with complexity when it is applied in practice. To ensure that all students can benefit equally from a choice plan, officials will have to solve such problems as: transportation for students; what to do about schools, and their staffs, that substantially lose, or gain, enrollment; and the apathy of many parents and their unreadiness to make informed choices about their children’s education.

Decisions on scores of such questions must be answered before any choice program can be put into place. And the all-important prior question is: Who decides?

It is on that fundamental question that Cavazos and the NEA are likely to remain in separate camps. The Secretary has been pushing for state legislative action. He has endorsed the array of choice programs adopted at the state level in Minnesota, as well as programs adopted this year in Arkansas, Iowa, and Nebraska that allow students the choice of transferring to virtually any school district in their state. And although he acknowledges that choice plans should be tailored to local needs, the Education Department has offered little guidance on what a good program is and how to make it work.

The NEA, on the other hand, takes the position that the decisions should be made at the district level. The union’s resolution clearly draws the line at programs mandated at the state or Federal levels. “We are real hostile to any kind of statewide mandates because local ownership is essential for anything to be effective,’' says Tuthill.

--William Snider, Education Week

A version of this article appeared in the February 01, 1990 edition of Teacher as Convergence On Choice


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