Sunday, December 24, 2023

Flashback 1988: Can school `choice' work?

     I see school choice is on its way out, again, according to my colleagues at WBEZ. A reminder that when you are confronted with an intractable problem, like the Chicago Public Schools, which reflects every woe in our society and can only be improved by addressing  those woes, the easier route is to cycle through old solutions.
      The story below,  a relic from when the paper sent reporters to other cities to study urban problems.  CPS has exactly 100,000 fewer students than when I wrote this, the result of parents fleeing Chicago or seeking out private schools. Yet they attend 50 more schools than 35 years ago, the result of Mayor Richard M. Daley opening 100 charter and magnet schools when he pushed choice as the panacea which — spoiler alert! — it wasn't. 
     Why? The piece is more than twice as long as a regular column, so in case that daunts you, I can save you the effort: school choice doesn't work because there are a finite number of excellent schools and a finite number of parents who give a damn, and the latter make sure their kids are jammed in the former, which is how every school system ends up working anyway.  Still, pulling away from one plan and embracing another creates the illusion of change, and I guess that's the best we can do.

     CAMBRIDGE, Mass. Mark and Elaine Haliday quietly slip into the back of a third-grade class at the Peabody School, a few blocks from Harvard Square.
     "Glove is to hand as boot is to . . .," teacher Mary Murphy is saying, as hands shoot up and enthusiastic students call out "oh, oh, oh."
     Mark rests his chin on a palm and suppresses a smile, studying the classroom. His wife leans over and whispers, "This is more structured."
     The Halidays are doing what all parents in the Cambridge public school system must do: select a school for their child. While the vast majority of school systems in the nation base their enrollment solely on where students live, and many districts permit exceptional students to attend special schools, only a handful allow all parents to choose any school in the district.
     No large city gives every parent a choice, but there's a movement afoot to make Chicago the first, as part of a general restructuring plan.
     "We're trying to do two things," said Donald Moore, executive director of Designs for Change, a Chicago school research and advocacy group. "One, give parents more of a voice in how their schools are run. And two, give parents more of a voice in choosing their children's school."
     Gov. Thompson's educational staff also is studying choice, for use in Chicago and throughout the state. Last month, the Illinois Board of Education recommended expanding Chicago parents' opportunity to choose schools.
     Choice, said Illinois Education Supt. Ted Sanders, "promises to foster diversity, healthy competition and school responsiveness to community concerns."
     But it also carries risks and poses logistical problems in a school system as large and diverse as Chicago's.
     Choice can take a variety of forms. In Cambridge, the process is known as controlled choice. It was implemented in 1981 as a route to desegregation. Choice is "controlled" because the final assignment of a student to a school is determined by racial quotas as well as by parental preference.
     In the East Harlem area of New York City, the program is just plain "choice." It was implemented in 1982, not as an integration tool (the area is almost completely black and Hispanic) but as part of an over-all drive for academic excellence in the junior high schools. Its main purpose was to draw parents into the education process.
     "If you can select your school, you feel you own that school," said Seymour Fliegel, assistant superintendent of the East Harlem district.
     "You treat what you own better than what you don't own. It's a healthy thing."
     In Chicago, most students must attend schools in their neighborhoods. About 8 percent get to choose other schools under the board's desegregation program, which relies on the bait of specialty magnet schools and programs - in foreign languages, for example — to create racially mixed student bodies where they would not otherwise occur.
     The results of Chicago's current program of limited choice are up for debate. While magnet schools are unquestionably beneficial for the students who attend them, critics say they hurt neighborhood schools that the more ambitious students leave behind.
      "The downside of magnets is they tend to skim out of the neighborhood the most resourceful families, leaving behind those less able to navigate those choices," said Mario J. Aranda, co-chairman of the education task force of the Chicago Partnership, a business and development coalition.
     The expanded system of choice being proposed for Chicago is closest to the East Harlem version. The main purpose is to improve schools by exposing them to the same competitive pressures felt by businesses. Under choice, schools would no longer be guaranteed a pool of students. Thus, they would be forced to improve to keep parents from transferring their children into better schools, and, in effect, driving ineffective schools out of business.
     Opponents contend that choice will only magnify the problems associated with magnet schools.
     "The more ambitious families would take advantage of choice and leave in large numbers," said Fred Hess, executive director of the Chicago Panel on Public School Policy and Finance. "Those schools would then be overwhelmed by less-supported and less-talented students. We could have a further widening gap between better-performing and worse-performing schools."
     There is evidence a significant percentage of Chicago parents might continue to send their children to poor schools just because they are close by. The biggest problem in Cambridge is getting low-income parents to shop around for schools. A massive outreach program, which went so far as to send megaphone vans into poor areas and volunteers into supermarkets to buttonhole parents with pre-school children and urge them to evaluate schools, had only moderate success.
     "Most people I show around here are white, middle-class people," said Mary Frawley, who conducts parent tours of the Tobin School in Cambridge, where the district is 45 percent minority.
     "A lot of parents don't want to go out of the neighborhood," said Daniel Kelly, a Cambridge elementary school principal. "No matter what you have at the end of the bus ride, it doesn't matter."
     Ironically, besides having a problem with the parents who fail to avail themselves of choice, Cambridge also has difficulty handling the parents who do visit schools.
     "Everything stops," said Frawley, noting that classrooms are disrupted by groups of parents trooping through. The Halidays were visiting the Peabody School for the third time, and some parents insist on visiting all 13 Cambridge elementary schools. Because of the disruption, Cambridge is considering replacing tours with videotaped presentations.
     East Harlem doesn't have a problem with parents visiting schools, because it does not see a need to educate parents about the schools they are selecting.
     "Most choice is made through word of mouth," said Fliegel. "Most parents know what the best schools are. Only educators think it's a big mystery to find out where the best schools are."
     Both programs are successful. Cambridge has desegregated its schools without inducing a lot of parent protest, and East Harlem is nationally recognized for the improvement of its district.
     While both districts include choice as an important part of improving the schools, neither district claims that choice alone produces improved schools.
     "If I give you the chance to pick one inadequate school out of six inadequate schools, I haven't given you much," said Fliegel, who stressed the importance of having schools at certain standards before choice is implemented.
     "There are no bad schools in Cambridge," said Margaret Gallagher, head of the Parent Information Office there. "We had a good system to begin with. The concept of choice is only as good as the choices you have to offer parents."
     But there are bad schools in Chicago. The nation's third largest school system, with 429,000 students attending 594 schools, Chicago suffers from a high dropout rate, poor teacher morale, decaying facilities and a litany of other woes. Some 70 percent of students are from low-income families.
     Advocates of choice in Chicago recognize the need to improve schools first. Their method would be to shift power from the central administration to parent-dominated school governing councils.
     "We don't think one will work without the other," said Moore. "The main thing that we need to do is train and organize parents to get involved with their schools."
     Parent involvement has been used, with good results, on a case-by-case basis, in Chicago schools.
     For instance, parents from Whitney Elementary, a mostly Hispanic school on the West Side, joined forces with parents from Mason Elementary, a predominantly black school on the West Side with a lot of unused capacity, to see if they could improve both of their schools. As a result, 188 parents agreed to bus students from Whitney to Mason, easing overcrowding at the former and improving the racial mix at the latter.
     "That's only one example," said Phyllis Aron, of the system's desegregation office. "We do all kinds of activities with parents encouraging other parents to participate in programs."
     Moore's group would allow only two years for the governing councils to produce improvements.
     Assuming that governing councils are put into place and a system of choice follows, new problems arise, such as paying to transport students to the new schools their parents have selected. Cambridge, with only 13 schools, found its choice system required stepped-up bus service, which accounts for a large part of the $1 million yearly price tag for choice. New staff was also required - including a full-time parent information coordinator and part-time paid parent liaisons such as Frawley at each school.
     Chicago advocates of choice don't see a need for hiring more workers, though. Teachers and parents could run the program at their schools, said Moore.
     Not everyone feels there is that much leeway in the system.
     "I don't think Mr. Moore knows what he is talking about," said John Kotsakis, assistant to the president of the Chicago Teachers Union. "There is no way that a teacher has enough free time to supervise and administer an additional program. They barely have enough time to do the paperwork and record-keeping required of them."
     The bottom line regarding choice is that, while it sounds good in concept and has worked in other smaller districts, a lot more thought must be put into how it would work in Chicago.
     "Whenever you say parents should have choice, that's like saying people should have fresh air; it's promoting apple pie," said Michael Alves, of the desegregation office in the Massachusetts Education Department. "How that choice process works in practice is what you have to be extremely careful about."

TUESDAY: Getting good principals.

— Originally published in the Sun-Times, May 3, 1988


  1. Nothing will ever fix the truly rotten & incompetent schools in Chicago until the insane out of control teachers union is blasted out of existence.
    Remember, they're the ones who sent a group to Venezuela & came back with a glowing report on how successful that totally broken down country is.
    The current union president makes about $300,000 a year & still manages to owe the city over $5000 for her water bill & even sends her own son to a totally private school, because she knows the Chicago schools suck, because the teachers suck. I really wish we had a mayor with the balls to hire permanent replacement teacher when these overpaid slugs go on strike, as it could only improve the school system & also put all the teachers on Social Security & get rid of the pension system.
    Most people don't know that while the teachers are supposed to pay 9% of their income into the pension system, with the school board also paying 9% into it, the teachers only pay 2% into it, with the school board, meaning us put upon taxpayers paying 16% into the pension system. Apparently, that was some crackpot accountant's idea to give them a bigger raise, something they have never deserved based on the outcomes of the student who must suffer in hundreds of low performing schools.
    Plus we still have schools with a few dozen students in them & should be closed due to such low enrollment & moved to a different school to fill that one up, instead paying a fortune to heat such under used buildings.
    And the school board's choice of air conditioning the buildings is to just put huge window A/C units in each room, a huge expense of capital & then pay a huge amount for electricity. Having been in a couple of those rooms in the summer, those A/C units are incredibly noisy & you can't think in there & I'm sure the kids can't learn anything either!
    Why aren't they going to heat pumps & with all those large flat roofs, massive solar panels on them?

    1. Wow! Thanks for telling us how you really feel? I suggest for your consideration that the Chicago school system is the result of a set of multiple, complicated conditions consisting of well intentioned, caring people who are doing the best they can with what they have, including their intellects and emotional intelligence. To blame and target one of those conditions; i.e. the Chicago Teachers Union and its leadership as the problem is not conducive to exploring new possibilities for a solution that will work for everyone. How about embracing Michael Timm’s approach for accountability — a simple 3-step process of 1)no shame or blame; 2)look in the mirror and ask what did I do to contribute to this problem; 3)engineer a solution. That’s in his book, How Leaders Can Inspire Accountability.

    2. Thank you Diane . well said

    3. Thanks for essentially admitting to being part of that rotten to the core teachers union, which care only about their obscenely high pensions & nothing else. Except of course getting the supremely incompetent Brandon Johnson elected mayor, to a job he's flat out unprepared for & is screwing up every day. He's so incompetent his official vehicle the city supplies to him with a huge police bodyguard faction has racked up so many red light & speed camera violations, that the city's automated billing system has issued a seizure notice for the cars due to his non-payment of the fines!

      I've never heard of Michael Timm & only a fool would say no shame or blame & ask a voter &/or taxpayer what they did wrong, when that voter/taxpayer has no way of creating a solution, because the powers that be run the whole shebang. You are far, far behind being a gullible fool!

  2. The illusion that there is something that it is usually teachers or money that is doing to make schools better performing is best illustrated by that study that showed that a school which admitted only students who had applied ( with every student applying being automatically admitted) outperformed schools where you went automatically in low income areas. Parents who cared enough to apply produced better students for the school. That’s often the “virtue” of school choice. But it leaves others, who need it most, worse off.

  3. As a lifelong chicagoan who was born in Garfield park and raised in north Austin neighborhoods my experience with Chicago Public Schools has been excellent. I attended Ella Flagg young grammar school in the 1960s. It was inadvertently integrated before the rest of the system due to the efforts of principal Valentine Casey . She welcomed a program for hearing impaired children many of whom were bused into the school which resulted in many children of color attending the school . There were no protests and these students while primarily receiving programs on the second floor were mainstreamed into all classrooms throughout the school.

    This allowed for an experience where I was exposed to different races and classes of people not living in our primarily working class neighborhood. Though I think many local families considered themselves middle class.

    I feel this circumstance helped me to develop a worldview not available to most studentS in the rest of the city.

    While demographics changed in this area the high schools in our district deteriorated due to discriminatory funding policies by the board of ed. amonst other factors. as graduation approached I feared, literally feared that I would have to attend Austin HS. as my father had twenty years earlier. Ms Casey and school administrators made students aware there were other choices for high performing students. Lane Tech and Prosser. I was fortunate to be accepted at Lane. The first year female students were admitted. many families moved. others enrolled in private , mostly Catholic high schools.

    My two youngest sons attended CPS some 40 years later. One Lakeview the other tested into Lane, his top choice due to excellent athletic programs. There are many high performing public high schools in Chicago now with excellent teachers and facilities. Lakeview was not one of them though is improving. Both of my boys graduated and enrolled in college. My youngest and oldest attended private primary school- Waldorf . My oldest stayed on for HS at Waldorf graduating first in his class.

    Anyway, we have experience with the range of educational options chicago presents. I live at 71st and Woodlawn Comey elementary is better than many schools nearby. This too is a working class neighborhood mostly people of color. Kids are receiving decent educations over here their parents give a fuck which seems to be key. My parents gave a fuck . We gave a fuck. Bottom line if you dont care your kids dont get an education worth anything .
    Enormous school systems cover the range from port excellent. Chicago on the whole may be at the lower end of the range . Sending your kids there presents an opportunity, Its up to your family to take advantage of it. You can't blame the teachers or the union. they can only do so much.The onus is on the community and families.


    1. A fine and interesting comment, FME. It's nice that you and your son were able to get into Lane Tech. You certainly do seem to have a pretty impressive range of experience with the school system.

      Separately, weren't you going to be moving to New Mexico or Arizona or somewhere? Is that still happening or are you continuing on here in the north? Just wondering -- no need to reply if you don't care to, of course.

      Merry Christmas and/or Happy Holidays to you and to all the EGD regulars who read these comments!

    2. When I was a kid there were only 2 "magnet" schools in Chicago lane for kids on the north side and Chicago vocational on the south side
      It was all about test scores. My son got in because now or at least then it was a point system. If you lived in an area with a high poverty rate you got more points. There are lots of magnets now. We did and he got in .
      He's at UIC now.
      He got to play baseball an extra year as a COVID red shirt and I decided to stick around to watch.
      My middle boy - lake view hs- is already in New Mexico, where we plan to retire, now pushed back to next year.

    3. Thanks for the reply, FME. It dovetails nicely with your recent remarks about enjoying the baseball games at UIC. So far, at least weather-wise, you seem to have lucked out with regard to the extra winter you're spending here!

  4. I don’t understand how anyone can point blame or credit on ONE person/organization within the CPS beast. Having been a CPS student for twelve years of my youth - while I saw good, bad and indifferent teachers - the number of Good far outnumbered the others. CPS then and now definitely needs to address issues but putting all at the feet of one group is not the solution. It rarely is when dealing with any government bureaucracy.

  5. My daughter and her family live in Waukesha, Wi. They have a similar program for school choice but it is county wide from what I remember. When my grandson was ready for school they were able to choose the one they wanted assuming there was space. One caveat was if it is not a local school you(the parents) have to provide transportation to and from for your child. She is very happy with the school her and her husband selected.


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