California's Offers Choice Of Schools for Students

Parents, with statewide opportunity, seek best deals for children

IN October 1993, American education reformers watched as the nation's largest state shot down one of its most controversial initiatives in decades: a move that would have allowed parents to collect $2,600 to send their kids to the public or private schools of their choice.

This week, the word ``choice'' is again on the lips of educators, parents, and students across California. Because of a law passed in the wake of the voucher initiative's defeat, students in 478 school districts throughout the state are examining K-12 campuses.

``My Johnny liked what he saw, so we're here to check it out,'' said Mary Beth Johnson, outside the Dixie Canyon Elementary School here.

In Los Angeles, the nation's second-largest school district, 22,000 classroom seats are up for grabs as parents fill out request forms due by June 12. Several schools are taking out newspaper ads: ``Why pay $12,000 when you can get the same plus more for FREE?''

At least 20 schools have produced 30-second commercials to be aired on the district's public television station. ``We're a safe, air-conditioned, closed campus that has won five school-beautiful awards,'' says Braddock Drive School in a TV advertisement.

``This is a really big deal for the people of this state,'' says Maureen DiMarco, state secretary for Child Development and Education.

But while Ms. DiMarco predicts that only about 1 to 3 percent of parents will take advantage of the program, she notes, ``It encourages innovation at one end, parental participation at the other, and gives everyone a greater sense of freedom.''

Similar legislation has hovered close to passage for several years, DiMarco says. But it took the threat of the voucher initiative - which looked strong in several polls before it was defeated - to oil the slide to success.

``People preferred this to what they saw as the negative side of vouchers, which was that people might abandon public schools altogether,'' DiMarco says.

According to the new law, schools statewide are now authorized to accept transfer students through ``random, unbiased'' means that prohibit evaluation based on academic or athletic performance. If districts determine that court-ordered or voluntary desegregation plans would upset racial and ethnic balances, they can refuse to receive the transfers. But they cannot say ``no'' on the basis of incurring a student's additional costs.

A separate law requires districts to allow children to transfer to any school within their home district that has space.

``The concept of parents having a choice about where their children go to school is of critically high interest to parents here,'' says Ron Walter, superintendent of 64 schools with 42,000 students in Garden Grove. ``But we have no idea how this will play out.''

Minnesota, which led the nation with open enrollment several years ago, averages about 1 to 3 percent of parents requesting school changes for their children. And California has had other forms of school choice for years: ``magnet'' schools that specialize in art, math, or languages, and so-called PWT (permits with transportation) programs, which enable children in certain circumstances to transfer to schools near a parent's place of work.

But because the new laws are far broader, questions abound in many corners: What about athletes who request transfers just to play on school teams they want?

What if students want to transfer back to their own neighborhood school? Will advertising sap school budgets while highlighting non-academic reasons to transfer?

``I wonder if teachers and administrators will try to develop innovative approaches to attract students,'' says Helen Bernstein, president of United Teachers of Los Angeles, ``and whether the state and local boards will get out of their way and let them do it.''

Bruce Takeguma, a specialist with the Los Angeles Unified School District's office of school utilization, wonders whether parents residing in another part of town will retain the kind of clout they would have at their neighborhood school.

``Will there be situations where parents are told, `If you don't like what we're doing, take your child somewhere else'?'' he asks.

Officials in the Los Angeles district are also waiting to find which, how, and why schools fill their open spaces. Several that report having no extra space are located in the Eastside, South-Central Los Angeles, and East Valley, due to immigrant explosions in the 1980s.

Several schools in the West San Fernando Valley have lost significant enrollment because of population exodus after the Jan. 17 earthquake here. South-Central assistant principal Norah Corbett says she is trying to attract 150 more students to utilize funding for a reform program funded under the Clinton administration's ``Goals 2000.''

``I would like to think this [new choice law] will be a catalyst to innovation,'' Ms. Corbett says.

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