Iowa, Arkansas Enact ‘Choice'; Proposal Gain in Other States

By William Snider — March 15, 1989 10 min read

Iowa lawmakers have narrowly approved a bill that puts that state at the leading edge of 1989’s hottest education-reform wave: school choice.

And late last week the Arkansas legislature approved a similar open-enrollment measure.

With the signatures of both governors virtually assured, Arkansas and Iowa follow the lead of Minnesota, which last year decided to allow all parents a free choice to enroll their children in virtually any public-school district in the state.

And before any students actually enter a new school under one of these programs, several more states are also likely to have adopted similar plans, undertaking what some consider the most significant structural reform to sweep American education in decades.

Lawmakers in 15 states are currently either considering open-enrollment legislation or awaiting recommendations from official boards or task forces charged with developing public-school-choice proposals. At least six other states are considering less comprehensive choice proposals that in most cases would restrict choices to specific groups of students, including the at-risk or high-school upperclassmen.

Several lawmakers who are sponsoring choice legislation said that their efforts received a major boost when President Bush wholeheartedly endorsed the idea in January, shortly before he took office.

“Choice puts us at right angles to a 150-year-old system, in which all schools were very much alike,” said Dennis P. Doyle, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, a Washington think tank. “People are now saying there are many different ways to do this job.”

For lawmakers seeking a way to hold schools accountable for the money they spend, the primary appeal of choice is that it theoretically will create free-market conditions under which schools will be forced to compete for students.

“When you make parents actual consumers, you wind up changing the relationship between school districts and parents,” said Larry Murphy, chairman of the education committee in the Iowa Senate. “You force the district to respond to parents’ concerns and offer programs that parents want, or they can leave your district.”

But for others, choice means abandoning the long-held goal of educating all students equally well.

“Choice fosters withdrawal from problems in a neighborhood school, rather than trying to find the answers to them,” said Ed Foglia, president of the California Teachers Association, which is leading the battle against interdistrict-choice proposals in California.

“It’s very difficult to stand up against this when everybody’s on the other side,” he added, “but I would be derelict in my duties if I didn’t.” California’s Republican Governor, George Deukmejian, its Democratic state superintendent of public instruction, Bill Honig, and a host of interest groups have begun pushing for choice legislation.

“I can sense this is the wrong path to go down,” Mr. Foglia maintained. “the little good it will do will not mask all the damage it will not cure.”

Guided by ‘Fear and Hope’

As was the case in Minnesota, Iowa lawmakers had had some previous experience with more limited choice plans before crafting their current legislation. Those earlier efforts had produced both a sketchy database and a constituency of parents pushing for even wider options.

In the past two years, the legislature has enacted bills gradually expanding the rights of students to transfer to districts contiguous to their own.

“We are very familiar with the dynamics of choice, and we do have some lab experiences by looking at Minnesota,” said Art Ollie, chairman of the House education committee.

“We realize there are risks involved, as well as benefits,” he added.

But for the most part, Mr. Ollie said, “people who oppose school choice oppose it out of fear, and people who support it, support it out of hope.”

Although Iowa’s open-enrollment plan is similar in many respects to Minnesota’s, it also contains additional restrictions on student transfers that are designed to prevent some of the worst-case scenarios critics associate with choice.

While both plans allow students to seek open seats in other districts, for example, the Iowa law allows districts that lose more than 5 percent of their enrollment in the first year to prevent more students from leaving.

Iowa’s law will allow students to begin choosing districts next fall for the 1990-91 school year.

“We want to move somewhat cautiously and monitor somewhat closely, to make sure nothing we don’t want to happen is happening,” said Senator Murphy.

Arkansas’ new law is also based on the Minnesota model, and will allow students to apply for transfers beginning in the 1990-91 school year.

“We were somewhat surprised” by the bill’s passage, admitted Mike Gauldin, press secretary to Gov. Bill Clinton, who proposed the legislation.

“Of all the accountability measures we proposed, this was probably the most controversial and thus the hardest to get passed,” he said. “But you never know.”

Unlike most of the other states’ proposals for open-enrollment, Arkansas’ bill contains no provisions designed to prevent the plan from causing sudden shocks to the existing educational system.

Funding Mechanisms

In its most basic form, open-enrollment legislation makes parental choice possible by creating a finance mechanism that allows students to transfer to other districts without paying tuition.

One of the thorniest issues facing the drafters of choice legislation is devising a mechanism that can compensate for the typically wide disparities in spending among districts.

Minnesota sets a statewide per-pupil spending figure each year, which also becomes the amount that will be transferred between districts exchanging students under open enrollment. Revenues collected from so-called “excess levies” in each district do not transfer.

In Iowa, which like Minnesota appropriates the majority of its education funding from the state level, districts that lose students will lose an amount equal to the average cost of educating those students. Districts that gain students will receive an amount equal to their average costs.

The state will have to contribute money to the program only to the extent that more students choose to transfer from poorer to wealthier districts, rather than vice versa.

In Massachusetts, which relies much more on local property taxes to fund education, the authors of a choice plan supported by Gov. Michael Dukakis chose to address this issue by setting a flat amount--$2,000—that will transfer between districts exchanging students, regardless of their actual costs.

“If we were a full state-aid state, this wouldn’t be an issue,” said Charles Glen, author of the plan and director of the state education department’s office of educational equity.

The flat sum represents a compromise between actual state aid per student—which would not be enough to convince many districts to accept new students, Mr. Glenn said—and the average cost of educating students, which would have made the program too expensive.

The largest potential cost of the open-enrollment bills proposed in Massachusetts and in several other states is for transportation for students from low-income families.

Supporters of these provisions, which are typically based on free or reduced-price lunch eligibility, argue that low-income families will be excluded from choosing freely if they are required to provide their own transportation.

But lawmakers in many states are arguing that no funding is available for transportation, or that it could be better used for other purposes.

In Minnesota, lawmakers also declined to fund staff-training and program-development efforts that many of the plan’s supporters felt would have made open-enrollment more effective.

Raising Equity Concerns

In most states, opposition to choice plans has typically centered on their potential impact on school desegregation and other equity issues. Experts say this helps to explain why the choice movement has experienced its greatest successes to date in states that have relatively homogenous student populations.

Virtually every plan under consideration this year would ban student transfers that would interfere with existing school-desegregation efforts. Governor Dukakis cited the lack of such protections in vetoing a choice bill that the Massachusetts legislature approved last year.

But the impact of choice plans on broader equity issues is still unclear.

“I have been struck by just how little information has been gathered in evaluating the equity aspects of choice,” said James Cunningham, a staff member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. The commission is currently planning a study that will look at several communities experimenting with choice models, he said.

“Choice very often results in schools that begin bad getting worse,” said Kati Haycock, executive director of The Achievement Council, an independent organization aimed at improving academic achievement among minority and low-income students in California.

“To say that a student should be forced to go to that school is a pretty awful thing to say,” she added, “but to allow only a few kids to escape, which is all too often what happens under unrestricted choice systems, is even worse.”

“We know how to make all schools good schools,” she said, “and putting our energies to that task would be far preferable to allowing choice.”

Most of the states that are furthest along in the choice debate also have large numbers of small school districts and have been involved in contentious battles over school-consolidation proposals.

Some of the strongest opposition to choice in these states has come from representatives of rural and small schools, who argue that the loss of even a few students would cause considerable budget difficulties.

“Philosophically, we don’t believe that choice is going to lead to improved education,” said James P. Havelka, superintendent of the Rising City, Neb., public schools and president of the Nebraska Rural Community Schools Association.

“We realize that we are probably going to lose that fight,” he said, “because the concept of choice is extremely attractive.”

But he added that, in addition, competition is also likely to renew historic antagonisms between rural communities in Nebraska at a time when many have begun working together to solve common problems.

“I’m fearful that a lot of these good cooperative things may well be killed in their infancy,” Mr. Havelka said.

For these and other reasons, education lobbying groups are more divided on the choice issue, lawmakers say, than on most other legislation.

The lack of consensus extends across state lines, with affiliates of the National Education Association, for example, supporting the choice legislation in Iowa and opposing a similar bill in California.

The NEA itself has recently called for a reappraisal of the organization’s traditional opposition to choice on the grounds that it is no longer a term connoting vouchers or tuition tax credits.

‘Charter Schools,’ Other Options

While open enrollment is the most comprehensive and popular form of state-level choice, a number of states have adopted or are considering more limited plans that have proven far less controversial.

One such plan, called a postsecondary-enrollment option, allows certain high-school students to attend colleges and universities and receive credit towards their high-school diploma.

The chief feature distinguishing the newly adopted postsecondary-option plans of six states from laws that had existed before is that public monies are now being used to pay the student’s tuition and fees.

Washington State currently offers this option only to students qualified to enter the University of Washington. But lawmakers there are considering a bill that would expand the program to allow all high-school juniors and seniors to attend any public college or university in the state.

Two states—Minnesota and Colorado—also have choice plans that allow dropouts and at-risk students access to a wide range of school choices throughout their states.

Similar legislation being considered in Washington State this year would limit choices to within a 50-mile radius of a student’s home district but would also offer transportation reimbursements for students from low-income families.

A newer state-level choice concept, called “charter schools of choice,” has not yet won acceptance in any state, but is being considered in four this year. It would give state grants to teachers to enable them to design innovative educational programs.

“The movement for more options among public schools is intended to—and is—expanding opportunities for educators as well as for families and students,” said Joe Nathan, a consultant in the development of several state choice plans and editor of a new book, Public Schools of Choice.

Charter-school bills, he said, “would establish a fund enabling teachers to create programs they’ve always dreamed about.” Bills currently under consideration in California and Colorado would also grant parents the right to petition or vote for the creation for public schools of choice within their own districts.

A version of this article appeared in the March 15, 1989 edition of Education Week as Iowa, Arkansas Enact ‘Choice'; Proposal Gain in Other States