Bradley Scott, M.A.
There is no doubt that our public schools are in a great state of flux and change. The forces and factors which affect public schools almost seem to take on a life of their own. On every hand and at every turn we are perplexed to know what to do to make schools better and to cause them to work better for all children regardless of race, color, sex, national origin, and/or economic circumstance. Many suggestions, solutions and recommendations have been proffered. In recent years, few, if any, have received more attention and public debate than the issue of school choice. What is it? Is it working? Can it work? Is it good? Is it bad? Is it the magic bullet? Is it fair? Is it a “smoke-screen?” Is it legal? Is it equitable? The debate and dialogue go on.
The issue of school choice has become multi-faceted, complex, and, for many, generally confusing. My attempt here is not to add to the confusion, but to offer a way of identifying and separating “school choice” from everything that is being called “school choice,” then calling it something else.
The notion of school choice is not new. Ruth Randall, former Commissioner of Education for the State of Minnesota, commented in 1989:
Choice existed already. “People have to go school, but people with money do not have to go to any particular school or district. People have always had a choice if they had money…”
Similarly, choice for those families who do not have money is not a new concept, nor is it new in its efforts to desegregate schools or to make schools more responsive to different learners. Mary Anne Raywid (Estes, 1990) noted:
In the past there have been some systematic differences between [alternative schools and magnet schools as] types of schools of choice. Alternatives, for example, began in the 1960s, almost entirely as single programs within a district established for the purpose of responding to the interests and needs of a particular group of students, teachers, and parents. Magnets began in the 1970s (a) to provide several schools of choice within districts, and (b) to establish a means for voluntary school desegregation.”
She also notes that, “...increasingly, however, the terms Alternative Schools and Magnet Schools, have been used interchangeably, and the two types of programs have come increasingly to borrow from one another.” Well, that’s not the half of it. The term “school choice” has evolved and has come to stand for any and everything from soup to nuts.
According to Ruth Randall and Keith Geiger (1991), choice programs come in many shapes and sizes. There are alternative programs which are aimed at, and designed to help, students for whom traditional educational approaches just do not seem to work. There are districts implementing school desegregation plans which have as a part of what they offer, “controlled choice” or limited open enrollment plans. There are districts which have teacher-initiated schools, or “schools within schools” which are designed by teacher and offer a choice to parents and students. There are states which have implemented open enrollment plans to allow parents and students unrestricted movement between school districts rather than simply within districts. Even though it should not be the case, in some desegregated settings, choice has become a way of creating predominantly White school settings in predominantly minority districts. Choice has also created White flight as White students choose to attend certain schools leaving a higher concentration of minority students in the sending schools.
Beyond these efforts, recent educational history (starting with the early 1980s) saw the term “choice” being used to couch the push for tuition tax credits and vouchers. The goal and design of these was to shift tax dollars to private schools at the expense of public education. Randall and Geiger (1991) also point out that some political leaders have used choice as a way of telling schools that they needed to do more with less. By touting choice as the desirable goal, these politicians can deny revenues for the maintenance of some schools (presumably less effective schools) while other schools get more revenues because of their increased student populations (students want to go to the more effective schools). Fewer, but more effective schools will save money – or so the thinking goes – by doing what they do for more students in fewer schools in more efficient ways. This latter point also applies to those instances where states have implemented choice plans as a way of indirectly consolidating rural districts by not providing funding to enhance the quality of school programs in schools losing students to other districts, or providing transportation for students wishing to transfer to other districts.
Additionally, according to Randall and Geiger (1991), “no state choice legislation now in place authorizes funds to ensure the creation and maintenance of parent information. Without such centers, how can parents be expected to make intelligent choices?” In truth, without knowledge and access to information about what is available, even though “choice” opportunities may exist, how much choice is there really, if parents and students do not know what is available and to what they have access?
It seems as though choice has come to mean everything and anything that people and their special interests want to do for, in and to public schools and the children who attend them. It is time to stop and take stock of what real school choice is, and then find another label for it so that it won’t continue to be mixed up with and misidentified as something it clearly is not.
Magnet schools are and have been an effective strategy to bring about some degree of voluntary desegregation in those districts involved in meeting such requirements. There is also some merit in the method of desegregation generally referred to as “controlled choice.” It is unfortunate that this method is so called, since it can easily be confused with everything else that is referred to as choice.
In “controlled choice” as a method of desegregation, the determining criterion for admittance includes a parent’s and a student’s decision to seek admittance to a particular school or program so long as the student’s presence in that school or program does not upset the racial balance and space. This method also has as accompanying pieces such important elements as transportation, funding of various kinds to support the student’s presence in the school or program, and ways of involving parents in their child’s life in that school or program. These types of schools or programs have been comparatively successful within districts, and also in some instances where metropolitan plans involving several districts are concerned. It is not known whether such a strategy can be effective at a statewide level.
Minnesota is the one state which has enough of a history in open enrollment to report findings on majority and minority students under such a system. A study presented to the Minnesota House of Representatives revealed that African American and Asian students “have disproportionately low participation in the open enrollment program” (Malone, Mike et al., 1993). That same study suggests that open enrollment is even encouraging White flight in Minnesota’s metropolitan areas. Because these findings run counter to the goals of desegregation, it is very doubtful that statewide choice is a viable option as a strategy to support desegregation and school equity.
We need a new term for “controlled choice” so that when the strategy is applied the results will not be confused with alternative schools, open enrollment, tuition tax credits, vouchers and the like. We are searching for a new term, an appropriate label that will capture that for which magnet schools and other desegregation strategies allow. An awkward, but useful term for our purposes here will be “self-initiated school site selection.” Whatever the term finally comes to be, it will probably also embrace the criteria which the National Education Association created for developing and implementing “choice” plans. These self-initiated public school site selection strategies will need to:
- be clear in their purpose and intended outcomes before they are undertaken;
- be designed to improve the quality of instructional and educational programs in the schools implementing such strategies;
- promote equal educational opportunity and equity for all students, and operate in ways that facilitate better racial, ethnic, gender, and socio-economic balance in schools;
- be legal, constitutional, and in full compliance with court decisions and with federal, state, and local mandates;
- provide adequate resources to ensure quality education programs for every student;
- strengthen decentralization and local control, as well as public accountability over schools;
- in no way lead to the privatization of the public schools;
- strengthen collaboration and cooperative efforts within and among the participating schools;
- be based upon the needs and inputs of students, parents, the school staff, and the community at large;
- provide adequate financial assistance to enable all students to have transportation access to the site they select;
- provide the resources and information necessary to ensure that every parent understands and is able to gain access to the options available;
- truly empower parents, educators, and others in the community in the quest for improved community-based schools and the possibilities of equitable educational opportunity and comparable outcomes for all children regardless of race, sex, national origin, or economic circumstance; and
- carefully spell out the roles and responsibilities of officials, parents, educators and the community in the development, implementation, and evaluation of any self-initiated site selection strategy.
We are in search of such a term. Given the foregoing discussion, we do not believe that “choice” is an appropriate concept or term; it carries too much unnecessary baggage and misguided thinking. While the term “controlled choice” captures an appropriate concept for school desegregation, we feel its similarity to the former places it in jeopardy of being misunderstood, becoming political, and generally weighed down by association. We would welcome any suggestions from you.
Clinchy, Evans. (1989) Planning for Schools of Choice: Achieving Equity and Excellence. The New England Center for Equity Assistance, The Network, Inc. Andovers, MA.
Estes, Nolan, Daniel Levine & Donald Waldrip eds. (1990). Magnet Schools: Recent Developments and Perspectives. Morgan Printing and Publishing, Inc. Austin, TX.
Malone, Mike, Joe Nathan, & Darryl Sedio (1993). Facts, Figures and Faces: A Look at Minnesota's School Choice Programs. University of Minnesota, Center for School Change, Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. Minneapolis, MN.
Randal, Ruth & Keith Geiger. (1991). School Choice: Issues and Answers. National Educational Service. Bloomington, IN.
Bradley Scott is a senior associate with IDRA and serves as coordinator for training and technical assistance for the Desegregation Assistance Center – South Central Collaborative. Comments and questions may be directed to him via e-mail at
[©1994, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Every effort has been made to maintain the content in its original form. However, accompanying charts and graphs may not be provided here. To receive a copy of the original article by mail or fax, please fill out our information request and feedback form. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]