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Eugene Weekly : 01.27.05

CHOICE AND LAWYERS

Does 4J's school-picking game leave too many losers?

BY ALAN PITTMAN

This school has capped, stable class sizes, higher test scores and a host of satisfied well-off parents who donate time and money to make sure their kids share their dedication to education.

That school has a whirl of kids moving in and out throughout the year, too often crowded classes, threats of closure and the most challenging kids to teach, with many parents focused more on making ends meet than on education.

Not much of a choice, but that too often is 4J's system of open enrollment, critics charge. They say school choice has concentrated the haves in alternative schools while leaving the have-nots, often Hispanics and blacks, in struggling neighborhood schools on the losing side of a widening achievement gap. 

District 4J's school lottery system is supposed to give every kid an equal shot at a slot in the best schools. But 4J data show the results are far from equal in the south Eugene and River Road areas where neighborhood and alternative elementary schools compete for the same kids.

'It's not legal … Either the district or a court will force a change.' — Nancy Willard

Adams Elementary is one of the top victims of school choice, critics say. Adams loses 71 percent of the students in its neighborhood enrollment area to parents choosing other schools, according to district data. The school is located in a middle class area, but is left with 69 percent of its students poor enough to qualify for the federal free or reduced lunch program. Adams is 25 percent black, Latino or Native American. One in five kids at Adams comes or goes during the school year. Poorer parents at Adams fund-raise only $65 per child.

A lot of Adams' more wealthy and white families choose to send their kids to nearby alternative schools. Hillside alternative, which shares the same building as Adams, draws 44 percent of its kids from Adams' neighborhood. By the same measures, Hillside has less than half as many poor kids and only a third as many minorities. Almost no kids come and go during the year and parents fund-raise about six times more money per child.

Nearby Eastside alternative draws another 27 percent of Adams' kids. Eastside has a 10th as many poor kids and only a sixth as many minorities as Adams. Almost no kids come and go during the year and parents there also fund-raise about six times more money per child.

River Road neighborhood elementary shows a similar pattern to Adams in losing white and wealthier kids to school choice. River Road loses 54 percent of the students in its neighborhood enrollment area to parents choosing other schools, according to district data. The school is located in a largely middle class area, but 84 percent of its kids are poor. Nearly half of River Road's students are black, Latino or Native American. One in four kids at River Road comes or goes during the school year. Poorer parents at River Road fund-raise only $47 per child.

Nearby, Corridor alternative draws a quarter of its students from River Road. The contrast between the two schools is stark. Corridor has a quarter as many poor kids and is almost entirely white. Very few kids come and go during the year and parents fund-raise almost three times more money per child.

"The data is crystal clear, no question," says Nancy Willard an attorney with two kids at Adams. The current alternative school policy has had a discriminatory impact based on race and class."

Critics of school choice say it's unfair to kids who, through no fault of their own, have parents whose poverty, lack of transportation, lack of education or lack of information leave them unlikely to take advantage of school choice.

Reformers want 4J to change the system to better mix schools and close the racial achievement gap. They point to widely accepted research on programs in a growing number of other cities showing that mixing poor and more wealthy kids in schools helps the poor kids while not hurting the upper class kids. As an added benefit, desegregation mixes classes and races to create a school system that truly teaches kids to honor diversity.

But some alternative school parents don't want their successful schools messed with. Geography causes more segregation in schools than alternative schools, and choice helps, not hurts diversity, they argue.

Judging from the past, the district isn't likely to change it's policy much. Critics have been saying choice unfairly discriminates since it's inception 30 years ago, with little change. In the past four years, two district committees have held months of meetings and put forward lists of recommendations, with no results.

But both sides of the argument smell change in the air. The district now has a black superintendent, George Russell, who is talking about reforming the choice system to help reduce a widening racial achievement gap in a school system growing more diverse.

"Choice is a factor in how some of our schools look, clearly," Russell says. "There's sure room for some change."

Supporters and opponents of change are nervously awaiting Russell's planned Feb. 7 announcement of what reforms he will recommend to the 4J School Board. If Russell and the board don't integrate the schools, reformers say they may sue for violating the civil rights of minorities and the poor.

 

DECADES OF CRITICISM

In America, where all kids are supposedly created equal, public schools were first envisioned as a backbone of democracy, open to all, a melting pot of race and class where all kids learned tolerance and mutual understanding and were given an equal shot at the American dream. But that common school vision has been troubled. Schools were deeply segregated until the Brown v. Board of Education decision 50 years ago. After that, desegregation was resisted with riots, bombings and murders in the 1960s. To this day, busing to mix kids remains highly controversial.

Eugene largely skipped this part of American history. In 1973, when segregation was a major fight in other cities and Eugene first introduced its school choice system, Eugene didn't worry much about race and schools because it had almost no minorities. Eugene was only about 1 percent black and 1 percent Hispanic. Today, Eugene is about the same proportion black, but the Hispanic population has grown to 5 percent with much more growth predicted.

Even without the segregation problems in other cities, school choice was controversial from the beginning in Eugene. In 1973 The Register-Guard reported that some School Board members and administrators worried that "open enrollment could breed student and staff populations that are very much alike, losing the diversity that exists in most neighborhood schools."

Arguments that choice would improve schools with competition and better meet parent demands won the day, but choice remained controversial. The district reviewed the policy in 1986, apparently without major changes. Margaret Nichols, the superintendent before Russell, was an early booster of choice. But by the 1990s, she was troubled by a system that she admitted had helped to so concentrate poor and minority kids that the former Whiteaker Elementary was ranked as the poorest elementary school in the state. School choice "does have its downsides, and I think of those often," she told Eugene Weekly in 1996.

With concern intensifying in the late 1990s, 4J formed a School Choice Task Group to examine the future of choice in 4J schools. The task group found that the inequities in the district's school choice program have created the "perception and reality" that Eugene has a "two-tiered" school district divided by race and class. The committee recommended reforms.

But some School Board members balked at taking action, citing opposition to busing and quotas and arguing the district should focus on higher priorities. Two years later the district again formed a committee to study the problem. The board and Russell told the committee they didn't want to abolish school choice, but wanted to reform it so that it would contribute to reducing the achievement gap.

The Access and Options Committee met for more than a year and reached largely the same conclusions as the previous committee, acknowledging that inequities in the school choice system contributed to the achievement gap and calling for reform.

After 30 years, reformers have grown impatient. "Generations of children are passing through our elementary schools" under the current inequitable system, says Betsy Boyd, an Adams parent and member of the 4J Budget Committee. "The district just needs to move more quickly."

 

REFORM OPTIONS

If the district decides to move on reform, it has a lot of options, based on experience from other cities and education research. Here's a rundown of leading reform ideas.

Information. Getting more information out to poor and minority parents could mean more diverse kids in alternative schools. Right now, 55 percent of 4J elementary parents say they don't know how the local choice system works, according to a district survey last year. Other school districts have used active recruitment to increase diversity. But 4J's dizzying array of choices may remain daunting to poor and busy families regardless of how much reading material the district provides.

Transportation. The district doesn't provide bus service to alternative schools and many poor families may lack the time and means to drive their children to an alternative school. The state could cover up to 90 percent of the added cost of improved transportation through its funding equalization formula. But it's unclear how much real impact simply providing buses to poor kids would have. Only 9 percent of parents say they would choose a different school if transportation were provided.

Magnet schools. Unlike in Eugene, school choice in most cities was designed as a way to integrate schools voluntarily by placing desirable programs in low-income neighborhoods as magnets. Many of the Eugene alternative programs in greatest demand are in more affluent neighborhoods and the ones in poorer areas don't give preferential admissions to neighborhood kids. For example, Fox Hollow French immersion elementary is in the wealthy south hills. Fox Hollow has almost no poor, black, Latino and Native American students and ranks as one of the least diverse and wealthiest schools in the state.

Setting up new magnet neighborhood schools in poorer areas could attract diversity. But the effect would be limited if competition continued from existing alternative schools. If existing alternative schools were closed or moved and merged with poorer neighborhood schools, some alternative parents may fight the change as harming their high-scoring schools.

Fairness. Neighborhood school supporters have long criticized the many special privileges of alternative schools. Alternative schools have enrollment caps that allow them to avoid the disruption of kids moving in and out of classes during the year. Researchers have closely linked high mobility rates to low school performance. Unlike alternative schools, some neighborhood schools that lack caps also suffer enrollment swells that pack classrooms, making it much harder to teach and learn.

The district has also given alternative schools the advantage of not having to accommodate special education and special needs children, almost all of whom are placed in neighborhood schools. Another advantage is not having to worry about school closure. Declining enrollment has recently closed several poorer district neighborhood schools with the threat of more to come, but so far alternative schools have been exempted from closure.

Spending. Recognizing that different kids require different amounts of money to educate, the state of Oregon adjusts the per pupil funding it gives to each district based on poverty, special education and other factors. Although the district gets 25 percent more money from the state for each poor kid, it doesn't directly pass that money on to its poorest schools. The district funds schools equally, largely on a per-pupil basis with some limited money available for literacy and other programs for struggling neighborhood schools.

The district could re-target spending to schools with more poverty where research shows teaching is often far more demanding. Schools in Cincinnati and Seattle have pursued such a policy and Superintendent Russell has advocated increased funding for poorer schools in Eugene to reduce the achievement gap. "Providing equal resources to address unequal situations will result in unequal outcomes," he told the school board two years ago.

Such targeted spending could have an impact if it were large enough. But with funding limited, large diversions to poorer neighborhood schools would mean less money for schools with wealthier students, and could draw opposition.

Another option would be to require wealthier schools to share a percentage of their larger fund-raising budgets with poorer schools to equalize funding.

Controlled choice. To increase income and racial diversity in schools and reduce achievement gaps, a growing number of cities have turned to systems of controlled choice. More than 400,000 students nationwide are involved in such economic integration efforts, according to a 2002 study by the Century Foundation. "There exists today a solid policy consensus that school segregation perpetuates failure," the foundation reported.

To integrate, districts commonly rezone school attendance boundaries and/or mix choice with a system of assignments or preferences designed to better blend poor and wealthy kids. Some districts collect information on parent education levels, for example. Successful controlled choice systems are coupled with increased spending to lure middle class parents to magnet schools in poorer neighborhoods, the Century Foundation reported.

Schools from Raleigh, N.C., to San Francisco have engaged in such economic integration efforts in the past four years. In La Crosse, Wis., which has the oldest integration plan, a busing system sparked a recall backlash but ultimately succeeded in increasing test scores and gaining public support.

The move to economic integration is backed by research from the Piton Foundation on Denver elementary schools showing that low income kids do much better in mixed-income schools and their presence doesn't hurt wealthier kids in schools with under 50 percent poverty. A recent investigation by The Washington Post and a study in Madison-Dane County, Wis., found similar results.

Such research indicates that Eugene could use integration to reduce its widening achievement gap without hurting wealthier kids. Over the past three years, the gap between the percentage of 4J Hispanic and white eighth graders who met state math test standards almost doubled. The black-white gap on the same test increased by a third. Last year, 74 percent of white eighth graders met the math standard, but only 22 percent of Hispanics and 35 percent of blacks scored high enough.

 

REFORM OPPOSITION

Reform advocates say the district should use a combination of many of the above options to change choice. But the closures, mergers and alternative school moves and redirected funding that critics advocate have made some alternative school defenders bristle.

Time spent on the divisive choice issue would better be spent lobbying Salem for more school funding, reform opponents argue. Geography is more to blame for economic and racial school segregation in Eugene than choice, they say. If choice were eliminated, high quality alternative schools would be hurt, and the city would simply resegregate by neighborhood or private schools with poor kids unable to switch schools.

Eastside parent Joe Thornton, a UO biology professor, wrote to Russell with a lengthy statistical analysis that he says backs up claims that alternative schools don't hurt diversity. Thornton says Willard is "cherry-picking" data to make her case.

But Willard says Thornton's analysis improperly uses districtwide averages to dilute evidence of the severe impact on the few neighborhood schools in south Eugene and River Road that directly have their white and wealthier students creamed off by nearby alternative schools.

Choice critics also dispute that alternative schools' testing success is due to any innovative teaching approach. The curriculum at most alternative schools is no longer that different, they argue. Widely accepted research shows that schools with the common alternative profile of higher income kids with dedicated, educated parents and classes with few children moving in and out almost always score higher on standardized tests.

Willard acknowledges that geographic and private school segregation is a problem. But she says the city and school district can control geographic segregation with controlled choice and magnet schools and with policies to disperse low-income housing.

Eugene has relatively few private schools, and Willard says massive white flight isn't likely. The fear of a few leaving shouldn't mean that Eugene should give up its values and "capitulate to the demands of rich parents who want a segregated, private-school-like environment in the public school system," she says.

 

LAWSUIT THREATENED

Without major reform, choice critics say they may sue for discrimination. "It's not legal," Willard says of 4J's policies. "Either the district or a court will force a change."

In 1954 the Supreme Court held that separate schools are inherently unequal and violate equal protection rights in the U.S. Constitution. Title VI of the 1964 U.S. Civil Rights Code prohibited racial discrimination in schools like 4J that receive federal funds. The Oregon Constitution and state laws have similar provisions. Eugene City Code bans discrimination based on both race and poverty. District 4J's written policy also bans discrimination broadly. "'Discrimination' means any act that has the purpose or effect of unreasonably differentiating in treatment based on" race, socioeconomic status and other protected classes, the policy states.

Choice critics argue that while 4J's lottery itself may be fair, the district's entire choice system has an illegal disparate impact on minorities and the poor that is without rational basis and illegal.

Eugene isn't alone in struggling to make choice work for all its kids, not just the wealthy ones. Boulder, Colo., is now embroiled in a debate over school choice that in many ways mirrors Eugene. Researchers from the University of Colorado hired by the Boulder district to study the problem concluded two years ago that the district's seven-year-old system of choice resulted in a two-tiered school system divided by race and class. "School choice has enabled some schools to achieve exceptionally high test scores and parent satisfaction, but only at the expense of other schools … School achievement overall has not improved. Worse, when the costs to equity are figured in, school choice in this district must be judged a loss."

The UC researchers noted similar problems with choice systems in New Zealand. The Raleigh, N.C. News & Observer reported two years ago on how choice was also resegregating schools there with complaints it was dooming poor kids to failure.

In Eugene, the long-festering school choice debate is growing inflamed. Nobody's throwing rocks and rioting as in the deep South, but usually like-minded south Eugene progressives are bristling and dividing up based on where their kids go to school amid charges of racism, classism and lies.

Willard admits she's "resentful" that her school has suffered so alternative schools can keep their privileges. But she says she doesn't blame the alternative parents. "Parents are always going to choose what is best for their children. Parents should." But Willard says she does blame the district's continuing policy of allowing 30 years of an unfair choice system that segregates schools.