ERIC Identifier: ED413388
Publication Date: 1997-10-00
Author: Cookson, Peter W., Jr. - Shroff, Sonali M.
ERIC Clearinghouse on Urban Education New York NY.
Recent Experience with Urban School Choice Plans. ERIC/CUE
Digest Number 127.
It is generally agreed that urban public schools and school systems need to
radically change how they are governed. Proponents of school choice believe that
empowering families with educational options will promote such a change, because
it presupposes that schools will reform to increase their attractiveness. In
fact, choice has been widely adopted; hardly a state in the United States does
not have some type of choice plan, and hardly a major urban area does not have a
limited choice plan. This digest presents an overview of different choice
strategies by reviewing the experiences in several urban areas.
STATEWIDE CHOICE: MINNESOTA
In 1988 Minnesota became the first state to enact statewide open enrollment
for all students, making all public schools throughout the state open to any
K-12th grade student, provided that the receiving school has room and the
transfer does not harm racial integration efforts.
Students also have numerous other options. High school juniors and seniors
can take courses at public or private higher education institutions for both
high school and future higher education credit. The High School Graduation
Incentive Program allows dropouts and students at risk of not graduating to
attend public or private nonsectarian schools with special supportive programs.
In addition, families are allowed to claim a tax deduction up to $1,000 for
school expenses, including private school tuition. Other initiatives include the
Diploma Opportunities for Adults, designed for students age 21 and over;
education programs for pregnant and parenting minors; and Area Learning Centers,
which offer personalized education programs for students age 12 to adult.
The Charter Schools Act permits teachers to create and operate new public
schools on contract to the local school board. Charter schools, accountable to
public authority and parents, offer innovative or alternative educational
opportunities for students. Thirty-five charters are allowed in the state
(Shokraii & Hanks, 1996).
ENROLLMENT. In 1995, 15 percent of the state's 750,000 public school students
participated in various school choice programs. Use of within-district choice
was greater in urban areas; use of open enrollment was more likely in smaller
districts and rural areas. Use by minority students is on the rise, with
minority and low-income students well represented in "second chance" programs
(Colopy & Tarr, 1994; Nathan, 1994).
PARENT INFORMATION/SATISFACTION. Parent information remains a key in
determining the use of any choice alternative. However, the sole statutory
responsibility for school choice information dissemination to parents resides
with the local school districts, even though they might face a conflict of
interest because of the threatened loss of students, and, therefore, funds.
Other information sources exist, such as hot lines, but seem inadequate since a
1990 survey found that parents were aware of open enrollment but not of
additional choice initiatives.
Parent satisfaction with charter schools is very high. Most liked their
special curriculum features, small size, and environment. Major causes of
dissatisfaction were a lack of school resources, transportation, inadequate
space, school administration, and turmoil during the first year (Shokraii &
IMPACT ON SCHOOL DISTRICTS. There is mixed evidence on the impact of open
enrollment on program improvement in school districts, but it appears that there
was little validity to the theory that choice prompts schools and districts to
reform programming to meet the demands of families. Only some districts that
lost a high number of students experienced teacher layoffs; cancellation of
academic courses, extracurricular activities; and student support services; and
school closings (Funkhouser & Colopy, 1994).
EQUITY. Minority youth comprise about 40 percent of charter school
enrollments (Nathan, 1996). Open enrollment has stimulated a noticeable increase
in the ethnic diversity of Minnesota public schools, and has fostered a more
equitable distribution of educational resources at the local school level
STUDENT ACHIEVEMENT. There is no conclusive data on the effects of open
enrollment on academic achievement. However, students feel that their
self-esteem, attitude, and attendance are greatly improved at their school of
choice (Rubenstein, 1992). Certain charter schools are indicative of the
improvements that open enrollment has promoted in Minnesota. The City Academy in
St. Paul, for example, with a program for alienated young adults wishing to
return to school, has graduated 54 percent of its students in three years
(Shokraii & Hanks, 1996).
CITYWIDE CHOICE: NEW YORK CITY
New York City, the largest public school system in the country, consists of
32 community school districts serving nearly 1.5 million highly diverse
students. In 1992 then New York City Schools Chancellor Joseph Fernandez
initiated a citywide choice plan.
Parents have the right to transfer their children to any New York City public
school, provided space is available. Parents who want to take advantage of the
interdistrict choice plan need to contact the Board of Education to obtain a
copy of the Chancellor's Choice Regulation, and become familiar with the chosen
school's procedures and requirements. They must then write a letter to the
superintendent of that school's district to request a transfer. The time period
for the superintendent's response is not specified. If a request is rejected,
the parent has the right to appeal to the Chancellor. There is no guarantee that
siblings will be transferred to the same school and, most importantly,
transportation is not provided.
Fernandez' successors have been faced with difficulties more urgent than
choice. Thus, there has been almost no publicity by the Board of Education or in
the districts. In fact, the only detailed information on choice available to the
public is contained in a special New York Newsday "pullout" section published in
1993 (Cookson & Lucks, 1995).
SCHOOL DISTRICT 4
STRATEGY. A well-known choice district is District 4, which lies in East
Harlem, one of New York City's poorest neighborhoods, and which ranked last
among school districts before choice was implemented. Beginning in 1976,
teachers were given the autonomy to redesign and create new schools. The
district now operates approximately 44 schools. The choice process starts in the
fifth or sixth grade, when students move from elementary schools to one of the
district's alternative schools. Parents receive an information booklet with
descriptions of each program, and are invited to orientation sessions to obtain
more information. Students are required to submit an application listing up to
ADMISSIONS. Admissions decisions are primarily made by the schools
themselves, which have a high degree of control over their programs and
admissions policies. There is one stipulation to the admissions criteria:
schools may accept no more than 20 percent of their entering class from outside
District 4's boundaries. The application consists of standardized test scores,
teacher ratings of work habits, attendance records, and academic abilities;
personal interviews are also conducted (Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement
of Teaching, 1992). In 1992, 60 percent of the applicants were enrolled in their
first choice school.
STUDENT ACHIEVEMENT. Before the creation of alternative schools, District 4
had the lowest reading scores of the 32 City districts. By 1988, 62.5 percent of
the students were reading at or above grade level, raising the district ranking
to 19. Student achievement in later years dropped off, however, and there were
sharp disparities in achievement among various choice programs. Nevertheless, it
is clear that District 4 has had a positive impact on student achievement in
East Harlem (Carnegie Foundation, 1992). One indication is that placement of
District 4Us graduates into selective high schools met or exceeded the citywide
rate for each of the most selective high schools in the City (Fliegel, 1993).
STRATEGY. There are currently more than 300 magnet high schools: academic and
vocational magnets, and academic career magnets that combine academic and career
curricula. Other schools center on special education or bilingual programs. Some
have programs that focus on science and engineering, medicine, the performing
arts, humanities, law, business, fashion, or other themes. Theme schools enhance
student motivation and create identities that bring the student body, faculty,
and administration together. Magnets foster an increase in parent involvement
and faculty morale.
Admissions procedures vary with the school; some admit students by special
audition or test, others by review of academic records and student interest.
Academic career magnets admit students half by school review and half by random
assignment through lottery.
EQUITY. Magnet schools have the ability to provide educational benefits and
reduce racial and ethnic segregation, depending upon the selection process
employed. A critical variable in determining who applies to which schools is
access to information through parent information centers; the more that parents
are aware of their options, the harder they will pursue their option of choice.
The schools have sparked considerable controversy over their role in student
"creaming." That is, the higher achieving students, with the most involved
parents and the most resources, gain more information and have greater access to
better quality magnet schools. Also, academic magnets select all their students,
and academic career magnets select half of them; therefore, it is inevitable
that weaker students will be placed in underfunded, underresourced schools, and
may suffer from having contact only with other low-achieving students.
The career magnets work to reduce racial and ethnic segregation through the
lottery system. They have produced a system that is fairly equitable for three
reasons: (1) the number of magnet schools is large, providing seats for many
students; (2) the application system is relatively simple, even for
disadvantaged students; and (3) the requirement that schools accept students on
a random basis decreases the effects of creaming.
ENROLLMENT AND ACHIEVEMENT. Most of the interest is in academic magnets,
indicating that students are interested in quality education, possibly with
plans to pursue higher education. This also suggests that students are choosing
schools to get away from comprehensive neighborhood schools. Magnet schools
provide seats for over 60 percent of the City's high school students (Tokarska,
1992). Generally, student achievement depends on the school ethos, its
organization, inspiring teachers and leaders, and the program plan. Since many
magnets are still in the experimental phase, they do not offer conclusive
evidence about the positive effects on academic achievement, although many have
lowered dropout rates and raised reading scores.
DESEGREGATION PLAN: MASSACHUSETTS
In Massachusetts choice has primarily been a means to achieve racial and
ethnic balance in schools. Experiments with choice grew out of efforts to
attract whites into inner-city schools. In the mid-1970s, Massachusetts created
magnet schools to promote desegregation, and though they did expand the school
options, they left schools more racially imbalanced than before. The limited
capacity created a number of disappointed applicants and drained much of the
motivated staff, parents, resources, and funding away from neighborhood schools
(Glenn, 1991). The selection process of magnets, primarily benefiting the more
academically prepared, excluded a sizable minority population.
Acknowledging the negative effects of a choice system based solely on magnet
schools, the state encouraged cities to experiment with other forms of choice.
Some implemented controlled choice, which does not rely upon the market
rationale of educational reform but offers a means to achieve racial and ethnic
balance in schools. Automatic assignment based on a child's address was replaced
by a system whereby the family selects a school after receiving information
about options and counseling. Assignment is made based on family preferences,
available capacities, and integration efforts. Controlled choice, intended to
increase the participation of low-income and minority children while stimulating
every school to be productive, has four objectives: (1) to offer all students in
a community equal access to all public schools, regardless of geographical
location; (2) to involve all parents in an informed decision-making process; (3)
to create pressure for all schools to improve, and eliminate enrollment based on
residence; and (4) where necessary, to achieve racial desegregation of every
school with a minimal amount of mandatory assignment. More than 25 percent of
the state's public school students attend schools in communities that are
actively encouraging choice (Glenn, 1991).
STRATEGY. Cambridge, one of the smallest urban districts in Massachusetts,
has one of the most successful controlled choice programs in the nation. Its
student population is about 50 percent white, 33 percent African American, 14
percent Hispanic, and 7 percent Asian (Thernstrom, 1991). Implemented in 1981,
the plan resulted from grassroots efforts like community meetings, school
mergers, and redrawn neighborhood lines. Students, who are provided with
transportation, can choose any school in the system as long as the enrollment in
every school, every grade, and every program, reflects a white-to-minority ratio
that is within five percentage points at the proportional racial composition of
Cambridge (Thernstrom, 1991).
The crux of the program is the Parent Information Center, which offers
information in six different languages. The Center provides information about
each school in the community, gets parents involved in school improvement,
reaches out to language minority and poor families who may be neglected by the
traditional system, and serves as a community center (Cookson, 1994). Cambridge
has invested $65,000 in the Center (Carnegie Foundation, 1992).
OUTCOMES. Over 90 percent of all students have gained admission to a school
of their choice (Cookson, 1994). In several grades, students outperform students
nationally in reading, math, social studies, and science (Carnegie Foundation,
1992). Minority students have outperformed white students in math and reading
citywide, and attendance rates have risen nine percent (Cookson, 1994). All of
Cambridge's magnet schools have achieved racial balance, but poor, immigrant,
non-English-speaking students remain relatively isolated in one or two schools.
Though there still exist inequities in resources and staffing, which are counter
to the goal of equity in controlled choice, there is an elaborate budgeting
process to assure appropriate funding for each school.
STRATEGY. Controlled choice in Boston was implemented in 1989 on a pilot
basis. Previously, the district had established a few magnet schools, such as
Boston Latin, which required entrance examinations for admission. The magnets
exacerbated the racial separation between schools because the more competitive
schools were predominantly white. Forced busing spurred white flight out of the
inner-city and out of the city school system, changing the social class
composition of the city.
Controlled choice divides the city into three geographical zones for the
purposes of assignment of elementary and middle schools; high school choice is
citywide. Families can choose an elementary or middle school in the zone where
they live. Students are assigned random numbers and applicants are admitted in
order of their number, although all assignments are made to ensure a racial
balance in each school. Students whose choices are all filled are encouraged to
make new selections based on what is available, with the aim of encouraging
families to investigate unknown options and possibly discover some surprises.
The goal for school improvement is not to eliminate the magnet schools, but,
rather, to make all schools and programs roughly equal in terms of educational
OUTCOMES. A majority of the students are accepted into their first choice
schools (Glenn, 1991). Controlled choice has placed more emphasis on abolishing
the traditional system of involuntarily placing poorer and minority students in
least popular schools and it has tried to create pressure on the educational
system to improve or close failing schools.
OF THE PLAN
Some critics of controlled choice say that counselors often do not know which
schools are filled, and therefore waste many parents' efforts to secure
admission (Glenn, 1991). Thernstrom (1991), blaming limited space in schools of
choice and the slow pace to improve all schools, asserts that desegregation
causes many involuntary assignments, and that pressure is placed on parents to
choose unpopular schools. Critics also feel that controls for race, ethnicity,
and gender compromise choice, and do not give parents the right to really choose
their children's schools. Conversely, controlled choice indirectly promotes
educational improvements by putting pressure on poorer performing schools, which
must either become acceptable or be shut down (Glenn, 1991).
School vouchers, one of the most controversial forms of school choice, are
cash certificates from public funds that enable students to attend any school of
their choice, public or private. According to most teachers' unions and other
public service organizations, vouchers would destroy the public school system
because they remove funds from public schools and allow the best students to opt
out of the public school system. Conversely, free-market conservatives support
vouchers because they believe in the marketplace as a mechanism for reform and
are committed to public policies that lessen the authority of the state. A key
issue is church and state relations; most voucher plans could result in the
expenditure of state money in private religious schools (Cookson, 1994).
DESCRIPTION. Milwaukee, Wisconsin, implemented the nation's first pilot
voucher choice plan in September 1990. The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program
(MPCP), a limited intersectional voucher plan for the Milwaukee School District,
entitles selected students to receive public monies to attend any nonsectarian
private school of their choice. The program is specifically designed to allow
low-income families access to private or alternative educational opportunities
The cash value of the voucher is usually equivalent to the state per pupil
expenditure on public schooling: roughly $4,400 per student in 1996-97 (Walsh,
1997). Eligible families have incomes not exceeding 1.75 times the national
poverty rate, with children not previously enrolled in a private school.
Legislation expanded the choice program to allow participation of up to 15,000
Milwaukee K-12 students in 1996-97, but a court challenge resulted in a decision
overturning the expansion. The judge ruled it unconstitutional by the use of
state funds to support religious institutions, and also reduced the size of the
program, citing that the expansion would no longer make the program
"experimental" (Walsh, 1997).
OUTCOMES. The MPCP has provided alternative educational opportunities for
many low-income students while not creaming the best students from the MPS
system (Witte, 1994). Student attrition has declined, although it remains a
problem for both choice and MPS schools. Students who leave the choice program
are more likely to have lower test scores, live farther away than continuing
students, and express a lower degree of satisfaction (Witte, 1994).
Researchers studying outcomes in achievement since vouchers became available
found that reading scores of low-income minority students were on average 3 to 6
percentage points higher, and math scores were 5 to 11 points higher than those
of comparable public school students (cited in Lee & Foster, 1997).
Attitudes of choice parents regarding educational quality and instruction,
and school administration, were much more positive than their evaluations of
their children's previous public schools. Also, parent involvement in school
activities was greater in choice schools than in most other Milwaukee public
schools (Witte, 1994).
California currently has a mandatory intradistrict choice plan and a
voluntary interdistrict plan, but voters rejected a proposed voucher plan in the
November 1993 election. Last year, Governor Pete Wilson proposed a limited
voucher plan calling for the state to pay a large portion of the educational
costs of students from the worst California public schools to attend public,
private, or religious schools of their choice. In November 1992, voters in
Colorado rejected a full school choice ballot initiative that would have
provided vouchers worth 50 percent of the existing per pupil expenditure to send
children to a public, private, or religious school of their parents' choice. In
1995, Cleveland, Ohio, became the only city in the country to institute a state
voucher pilot program that includes all schools, public, private, and religious.
Low-income students receive twice the percentage of tuition costs than other
students do. Initially, the plan was limited to students from grades K-3; one
grade level is to be added each succeeding year, up to grade 8.
Choice has proven to be a useful tactic in
promoting urban public education transformation and experimentation, and its
focus on the involvement of families in all phases of schooling is important.
Choice is not the only genuine engine of educational reform, however, although
the reports here suggest that it can increase educational effectiveness and
opportunity. Ultimately, good schools for all children will only be achieved
through finance equity, prepared professionals, high standards, and purpose.
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