Cavazos Couples Parental Choice, Site Management

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Secretary of Education Lauro F. Cavazos last week called school-based management an essential supplement to parental choice, indicating for the first time that he considers the two reform strategies of equal importance in efforts to improve schools.

Teachers and principals should also be allowed to choose or create distinctive schools, the Secretary said, so that parents and students can have meaningful choices among differing educational approaches.

The remarks came during the first of five regional meetings that Secretary Cavazos has called to further the national debate on parental choice, a term he defines broadly to encompass a wide variety of models and philosophies.

Education Department officials described the Secretary's statements as an "evolution" in his thinking, rather than a substantive shift in direction.

By emphasizing the coupling of choice and school-based management, however, Secretary Cavazos appeared to move closer to the views of many liberal proponents of choice. Such advocates argue that choice could allow diverse approaches to education to thrive, and could ensure that students would be able to find a school that meets their unique needs.

Conservative proponents of choice, on the other hand, typically stress the benefits of free-market forces in education, and place greater emphasis on competition based on quality, rather than diversity.

The shift, however, did little to mute criticism of Mr. Cavazos' choice initiative.

Representative Augustus F. Hawkins, one of the leading opponents of federal efforts to promote choice, last week launched a counteroffensive from Washington, D.C.

Mr. Hawkins, the California Democrat who chairs the House Education and Labor Committee, announced that he would be available to the media to rebut pro-choice arguments and that he is investigating the source of the funds the department is using to pay for the meetings.

"I think [choice is] a threat to the security of the nation," Mr. Hawkins said in an interview in Washington. "It isn't going to educate the children that need it most. It's going to educate a few, possibly, but leave the rest uneducated."

District 4 Highlighted

The local politics of Community District 4 in East Harlem, which operates one of the nation's longest-running and most widely praised choice plans, also colored the regional meeting.

District 4, one of 32 community districts in New York City, has been forced to cut the budgets of some of the programs that have made the district well-known among educators, and its superintendent has been suspended without pay for the past 10 months pending resolution of charges of alleged wrongdoing. (See related story this page.)

The district was chosen as the site of the department's first regional meeting because it is "the most dramatic example" of parental choice in action, said John D. Klenk, director of the Secretary's choice initiative.

Noting that many critics of choice say that the education strategy would not benefit low-income and minority children, Mr. Klenk argued that District 4 "demonstrates that those legitimate concerns can be addressed."

Almost all the students who live within the district's boundaries come from minority groups, many from homes where Spanish is the only language spoken, and the vast majority are poor.

Among the indications of success demonstrated since the district embarked on a path of innovation 16 years ago are dramatic increases in test scores and attendance rates and a notable reduction in incidences of violence and other serious disciplinary problems.

But the evidence that was most noticeable was a palpable sense of a commitment to, and excitement about, learning by both teachers8and students, said many of the meeting attendees who came early to tour the district's schools.

"These schools are very striking when you see them--they are not the norm for inner cities," said Ted Sanders, Undersecretary of Education.

"I saw the same thing over and over again," he said. "The atmosphere here demonstrates pride in the schools. I saw a lot of good teaching, and students that were really engaged in learning."

The Role of Choice

District 4 officials--both past and present--are quick to point out that choice is but one of a number of innovations that the district has implemented in the past 16 years, and they say the oft-cited success of the district can not be attributed to any single factor.

The district has subdivided its 20 school buildings into some 50 autonomous schools, with enrollments ranging from less than two dozen to a few hundred students. More than half of the schools offer innovative educational programs developed by teachers or other school leaders, and the more traditional schools have also benefited from the implementation of new programs, they said.

"Choice was a necessary, but not a sufficient, cause for our success," said Deborah Meier, principal of Central Park East, a high school she is in the process of developing after creating several other well-known alternative schools.

"Choice, by itself, will lead nowhere," she said.

Mr. Cavazos seemed to echo this belief in his keynote address when he said that "schools of choice must also have school-based management."

"This would inject vitality into the education system in other ways," he said. "It encourages principals and teachers to become entrepreneurs and to restructure their curriculum and standards; it involves parents, and it also encourages students to become learners with options that capture and direct their potential."

While the Secretary mentioned school-based management four times in his speech, the terms "competition" and "free-market forces" were noticeably absent.

Asked later to elaborate on his remarks, Mr. Cavazos said it is "vital" for school staffs to have the opportunity to create alternatives "if we are going to really have good choices for parents and students."

Referring to choice plans that do not have provisions for local empowerment, the Secretary said that "choice is a force that does create some competitive processes."

Choice Is a 'Passageway'

The Secretary's remarks stood in contrast to those of Pierre S. duPont 4th, former Governor of Delaware, who said that, "before there can be change, there has to be choice."

Gov. Thomas Kean of New Jersey called choice a "passageway--it's a way we can get from the schools of today to the schools of tomorrow."

While saying that "the evidence is overwhelming that choice will work," Governor Kean also cautioned that "I've been involved in education reform too long to suggest that it is the be-all and end-all."

That choice is too multi-faceted for many people to wholeheartedly endorse or unequivocally reject was apparent when the audience responded as warmly to the comments of choice critics as they had to Governors duPont and Kean.

"Choice is a cosmetic, simplistic response to the failure of American schools," Phyllis P. McClure, director of education for the naacp Legal Defense and Educational Fund, told the audience. "The Secretary and the President are engaged in a public-affairs exercise to divert attention away from the real issues."

"The only real answer is to create excellent schools for all children," she added. If choice is implemented on a wide scale, she said, "let the buyer beware."

Choice Opponents Included

The inclusion of Ms. McClure and other choice opponents on the conference agenda came at the request of Congressman Hawkins, who provided the Education Department with a list of suggested invitees.

"The Secretary was never trying to restrict the discussions; he wants to promote the debate," Mr. Sanders explained.

Barbara Dandridge, an aide to Mr. Hawkins, spoke at the conference and distributed literature that included a study showing that choice plans limited to only a few schools in five urban districts have created unequal educational opportunities for students. (See Education Week, May 18, 1988.)

The Congressman has criticized the Secretary's choice initiative as ''peddling snake oil" since it was first announced last spring.

"To me," he said in an interview last week, "it's almost criminal to divert attention away from the basic issues of education to take up some fool idea that's never been thought through."

"We should let people make the choice for themselves and not push something down their throats," he added, "particularly when it's never been heard by a committee of Congress, and has not been part of the legislative process."

Mr. Hawkins also repeated his charge that the choice initiative has diverted the department's attention from implementation of the Hawkins-Stafford School Improvement Act of 1988, which he said contains procedures for parental involvement and accountability "that were approved last year by the Reagan Administration as well as both houses of Congress."

Asked whether the Secretary's new emphasis on school-based management as a necessary accompaniment to choice would moderate his criticism, Mr. Hawkins said, "school-based management is definitely a factor."

"But," he continued, "it's not inherent in the idea of choice, and won't always be included in choice everywhere, yet they're pushing choice everywhere."

In response, Mr. Sanders said that "I think [Mr. Hawkins] is arguing a single agenda."

"The Secretary is not arguing a single agenda--he has said all along that choice is only one of several strategies that we must pursue," Mr. Sanders said.

"School reform is not like a cookie cutter," he added. "Just like students have very different learning styles, there is not a single template in the country for school reform or choice."

Secretary Cavazos is scheduled to preside over the next regional choice meeting this week in Minneapolis. Additional meetings will be held Nov. 13 and 14 in Charlotte, N.C.; Nov. 16 and 17 in Denver; and Nov. 28 and 29 in Richmond, Calif.

Washington Editor Julie A. Miller contributed to this report.

Vol. 9, Issue 8, Pages 1, 21

Published in Print: October 25, 1989, as Cavazos Couples Parental Choice, Site Management
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