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To Get Parents Involved, Put Choice Into L.A. Schools : Properly Structured, It May Be Last Hope for Less Fortunate

There’s something wrong with an educational system that yields us such lousy results. Simple common sense tells us that we must change the process in education if we hope to achieve different results.

--Adam Urbansky, president,Rochester Teachers Assn. Reacting to the fact that 90% of Los Angeles’ minority students score well below state averages, school Superintendent Leonard Britton, his staff and teachers won the unanimous approval from the Los Angeles School Board last week of a conceptual 10-year, $431-million education reform plan titled “The Children Can No Longer Wait.” The goal affirmed by each board member was to reverse low academic achievement, particularly among students in poor, minority neighborhoods.

As longtime advocates of quality education for low-income and minority children and for equity and racial integration of schools, we have only praise for the school district’s new priorities. The plan’s 38 recommendations properly focus on pre-kindergarten programs, literacy, new and rigorous school curricula, reduction of class size, school-based management, creation of multilingual environments and more guidance and library services at the elementary level. Such objectives are necessities if we are to reverse a cycle of failure in many of our schools. But while we commend the effort, we also find the reform’s agenda insufficient. What we find missing is an expansion of parental choice within the school district’s seven regions. We strongly believe organizational change that provides new incentives for school performance is a central, critical element of improving our system.

Parents are consumers. They have the right to choose virtually everything that’s important to them--who they marry, where they live, what job they take, which cars they drive, where they vacation, whether they go to college and how they raise their children.

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And yet they are denied the opportunity to make one of the most important decisions a parent can make--which public schools their children should attend. This is probably the only major decision in American life that society has taken away. Instead, it is left to a large, faceless bureaucracy that is beyond reach. And the declining quality of education is a direct result of the denial of parental choice and the lack of competition among schools.

Many minority leaders are concerned that parental choice is an elitist concept that will only help middle- class children get a better education outside their neighborhood and community. This is a legitimate concern. But, in practice, it is primarily the poor and minority parent who lacks choice. Middle- nd upper-income families can easily opt for private schools or better public schools in suburban communities. But if parental choice is properly structured, concerns about elitism can be addressed. Parental choice may well be our last best hope to stimulate the provision of quality urban education during this century.

The key is to make public schools more responsive to low-income and minority parents in their own communities. We recommend that these parents be allowed to choose the schools their children will attend within the region where they live. This will ensure that parental choice does not become an elitist mechanism, but rather helps implement the “community as the greater school” concept urged by the district.

Choice is the grease that will compel the local schools, the teachers and the principals to be responsive to parents and students on a continuing basis. One of the primary causes of the decline in urban education is that teachers and principals have been forced to be more responsive to middle managers in the bureaucracy than to the real consumers of education--students and parents. If the incentive system can be shifted back in the right direction, teachers will be free to focus on what they do best--teach children and be responsive to their needs.

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The only way the system can respond to parental desires is to give principals and teachers greater flexibility and responsibility. Once this process starts and new incentives are put in place at the local school level, the inevitable result will be more creative and more effective schools.

Consider New York’s District 4, otherwise know as East Harlem. Fifteen years ago, the district ranked last in reading scores in New York City. The district had problems endemic to inner-city, low-income districts. Innovative risk-taking was easily justifiable, and the district created a system of choice similar to the environment in private and parochial schools, where parents have the opportunity to select a quality school that meets their interest and abilities. Today, the number of students reading at or above grade level has quadrupled and several hundred white students who live outside the district now choose to attend its schools. The assistant superintendent remarked recently, “In District No. 4 we hold the general belief that what is good for the children of the rich is good for the children of East Harlem.”

How would parental public-school choice work in Los Angeles? Clearly many specifics must be developed. Yet the first step for the board is to refine its otherwise fair and simple magnet school procedures so that students may attend any school within their region. The board must consequently help local school authorities provide substantial time for teachers to plan lessons, with a challenge to create a distinctive approach to excellence. And a transportation plan must be developed to facilitate travel within the district.

The district also must reach out to parents. Other school districts have hosted informational meetings, sponsored recruitment fairs and published informational literature to help parents make informed choices. Perhaps organizations within each region could be asked to assess school performance and to inform parents of the real choices afforded by a region’s public schools.

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Without this major structural change, the school district will never encourage the participation from parents essential to inspire educational reform. Certainly $431 million spread out over 10 years may raise student performance levels, although similar amounts spent in the past have not. But this new program, and countless other episodic reforms, will only thrive when parents, teachers and administrators have a real stake in the fight for higher student achievement. Public schools of choice could constitute the deregulatory move that would permit public education to be much more attentive and responsive to the needs our changing school district and society. Indisputably, the current system is failing us all--and thus, now it is parents who can no longer wait.


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