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School Choice: Just Say No

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To the editors:

The members of Educators for Democracy & Progress discussed with keen interest the "Pick-a-School" article in the July 5 Reader.

We have been studying school reform nationally and in Chicago. We are impressed with what the parents and teachers in Chicago's local school councils have been able to achieve in one year--even with the resistance of the central school bureaucracy.

Nowhere in the country is anything like the system-wide Chicago reform plan being attempted. We believe that a number of the local school councils--free from the control of the central bureaucracy have already developed innovative programs and chosen new teachers and principals to implement them creatively. Student interest has increased with local control, and reading, writing and math performances have advanced in a number of schools in this short time.

But this experiment in democratic decision making is already threatened in three major ways:

(1) The huge budget deficit ($315 million?) has led Superintendent Kimbrough to propose that a number of schools with innovative local school councils be closed or merged with other schools (16 schools to be closed and 36 pairs of schools to merge). What will happen to the developing local school councils and to the community spirit generated by the LSC work?

One of the most important early results of the work of the local school councils is the change in student attitudes. At one of the rallies, Steven Moody gives an indication of how students in many schools are beginning to feel, "I love my high school. If Carver is closed, I'll have to get my diploma from somewhere else. I want to graduate from Carver next year."

Students, parents, teachers and principals in several targeted schools started protesting July 8, demanding that their schools be left alone to continue advancing. At Richard Henry Lee school, local school council president Darlene Lamberth said, "Now all of the gains we've made in the last two years have been ripped away from us."

Carver High School, which mainly serves students from the Altgeld Gardens public housing project, was put on the closure list for "poor building conditions." But Johnny O'Neil, vice president of the local school council, pointed to the recent $700,000 roof repairs and the installation of a new sound system. "Anyone that just comes up to Carver will see that our school is in better condition than most schools on the south side." Since 1989 (when school reform was started) Carver's drop-out rate decreased from 52 percent to 42 percent--now below the citywide rate.

The demonstrators condemned the planned closings as unfair, unnecessary and even dangerous in cases where students would be forced to cross street-gang boundaries.

(2) Chapter I money (approximately $81 million) is to be taken away from the local school councils to be used to solve general budget problems. These state funds specifically earmarked for students in poor families are virtually the only money that gives the local school councils the power to make significant changes, adding teachers, specialists in reading, art, etc, buying computers, repairing rundown facilities, etc.

Protesters led by local school council members have insisted that without this money, school reform is little more than a phrase. The protesters called instead to "Chop from the top!"--eliminating bureacrats in the Board of Education in favor of the school reform which puts local control in each school community. The human resources department, for example, still has 125 positions, even though under the school reform plan it no longer conducts teacher testing or selects teachers.

(3) School Choice--"the voucher system"--is repeatedly suggested as a cure for the education crisis. How can Mayor Daley, or anyone interested in improving education for Chicago children, suggest that an experiment which has just begun to produce results should be disrupted by the Choice scheme--which has nowhere produced what it claims?

Choice claims to give poor families real choice, but a voucher that can be spent at a private or public school out of the neighborhood cannot give parents the best chance to get the kind of education they want for their children. Right now parents have been directly making local schools into community centers of enthusiastic learning and neighborhood pride. With vouchers they would be limited to choosing from whatever schools someone else decides to develop. In Milwaukee parents who used vouchers to choose a private school helplessly saw that school close in midyear and were left with nowhere for their children to go.

It does not make sense in Chicago to talk about vouchers. There's no evidence anywhere in the country to show that with vouchers the poor children, who now get the worst education, would then get education equal to what children in wealthy suburbs get. The evidence cited in "Pick-a-School" and in our sources shows that with the choice systems now in operation only the best, easily educated students are welcomed into parochial and private schools, leaving the neighborhood schools even worse off without their natural student leaders.

If money leaves neighborhood schools, what will happen to the remaining children--those whose parents can't afford to transport them or can't afford the additional fees a private school may demand or may not have the scores a desired school may require? Choice for some will mean worse education for many (most?) of those already getting poor quality schooling.

We agree with the point made in Harold Henderson's article, "Across-the-board vouchers or tuition tax credits will produce fairness only if educational entrepreneurs flock into the ghetto, anxious to educate the kids with the most serious behavior and learning problems. There is little in the record of market initiatives (remember telephone deregulation?) or of voucher systems (Medicaid?) to suggest that entrepreneurs would do any such thing."

Despair over educational failures has led some to cry, "What've we got to lose in trying Choice? We've tried everything else." But the Chicago School Reform Plan has not been given a fair trial yet. We join the local school councils and the communities they serve in saying reforming Chicago education by putting real power in the hands of parents and teachers deserves time, money and energy. Let's see what can be produced by those in direct daily contact with children--when they are given the funds and public support to implement needed changes.

Educators for Democracy & Progress

(Chicago Area)

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