The Choice Approach to Education : Schools: Letting students and parents pick the proper campus improves both academic performance and attitudes.

Stuart E. Gothold is Los Angeles County superintendent of schools

Advocates say it is the solution to what ails education. Detractors say it is the dreaded voucher system in disguise. The "it" is choice , one of the most widely and forcefully debated reform efforts in American education.

Choice, to be sure, is not the panacea for what's wrong with education in the United States. But early results show that it is effective in meeting the needs of an increasingly diverse student population.

Unlike the voucher system, choice does not provide dollars for students who want to attend private or parochial schools. Instead, it seeks to improve the curriculum, climate, administration and effectiveness of public systems.

More and more school systems are adopting choice programs. Iowa and Arkansas have joined Minnesota, the first to implement the idea, in passing statewide open-enrollment legislation; 20 other states are considering similar action. Polls show that 71% of the American public approves the choice approach.

The benefits have been documented. Mary Ann Raywid of Hofstra University says that more than 120 studies confirm that choice programs help improve student performance and attitude. Increased parental involvement, higher morale among teachers and administrators and an overall rise in the graduation rate are other positive changes resulting from the programs.

Educators, however, must never forget that choice is a means, not an end. To be effective, schools participating in choice programs can have only one objective--to educate every child to the best of his or her ability, with no preconceived ideas about the limits of any child's ability. Choice proponents who believe that the goal is enhanced competition or the furtherance of free enterprise are not only mistaken--they are dangerous.

There are at least six different forms that choice plans can take:

Interdistrict choice allows parents to choose among schools in districts where they do not live.

Postsecondary options allow high- school juniors and seniors to take courses for high-school or college credit at such institutions as community colleges, vocational/technical institutes, four-year colleges or universities.

"Second-choice" programs are designed for students who do not perform well in a traditional school setting. Some programs allow them to attend a public school other than the one to which they would normally be assigned; others provide alternative programs or postsecondary options.

Intradistrict choice (community options) : Controlled choice allows parents to pick a school within the child's home district. Because one of the goals of this plan is frequently voluntary desegregation, each school must maintain the desired racial-ethnic balance.

Intradistrict choice (method emphasis) : Teacher-initiated programs strive to make every campus in the district a school of choice, organized around a shared philosophy of education. Teachers have a major role in selecting the curriculum and in developing teaching strategies.

Intradistrict choice (subject emphasis) : Magnet schools have open-enrollment policies for students throughout the district who share a particular subject interest.

The latter three plans seem most appropriate for Los Angeles. Yet there are special circumstances under which interdistrict choice plans can be advantageous.

The Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, by all accounts, is a case in point. Located on the campus of California State University, Los Angeles, it serves more than 400 students from 44 school districts. In addition to excelling in the fine and performing arts, its students consistently score above state averages in math and English. Because Arts High is a regional school, it neither drains the most talented students from any one district nor diminishes district revenues. (This fall, a high school devoted to math and science will be established on the campus of Cal State Dominquez Hills.)

The advantages of intradistrict choice plans are no less evident. For one, district revenues are not transferred to other districts, as is the case with interdistrict plans. Transportation problems are minimal. The home-school relationship is strengthened as a result of parents becoming more involved in decision-making. Individual schools are encouraged to improve their programs.

Choice programs also offer options to the poor that have traditionally been available only to the wealthy. Consider the East Harlem schools. In the mid-'70s, they ranked last among 32 community school districts in New York on standardized test scores. Only 15% of the students could read or do math at their grade level. Vandalism and absenteeism were rampant.

During the '80s, the district began creating different types of instructional plans from which families could choose. Programs to keep parents abreast of these developments were formed. Today, families can choose from among all junior high schools in the district. There are more than 50 optional schools in 20 buildings; 65% of the students score at or above grade level on standardized tests. Vandalism and absenteeism have dramatically declined. There is a waiting list of teachers wanting to transfer into the schools.

School districts interested in establishing intradistrict choice plans should consider the following:

By controlling enrollment to ensure racial-ethnic balance, choice plans need not undermine district desegregation plans.

Enrollment on a first-come, first-served basis is not ideal, since it may give better-informed, more assertive parents an unfair advantage. To avoid this, all parents must receive clearly worded guidelines and the information necessary to make an intelligent choice. Past academic and behavioral records should not be used to disqualify applicants.

A major hurdle is transportation, especially when there is no commitment of national, state or local resources to provide it to poor or inner-city students. Local businesses, civic and service organizations could pick up some of the financial slack by "adopting" students or offering transportation scholarships.

There are other obstacles to clear before choice programs can be implemented. Union cooperation and support must be secured. The desire in some communities to use choice as a detour around desegregation should be resisted. One of the most effective ways to ensure balance is for citizens to elect school-board members who are committed to providing a quality education to all children in the community.

As educators grapple with the challenges of restructuring what has been a uniform, rigidly structured system, allowing students--with parents' blessing--to attend schools of choice may prove to be a significant part of the solution.

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