THOUGH the issue of school choice remains controversial, the Big Apple is moving full speed ahead on a plan to expand public school choice for city parents.
New York City Schools Chancellor Joseph Fernandez says that by next fall empty seats in all public elementary and junior high schools must be made available to children from all other districts. While the system as a whole is overcrowded, more than half of the 800 schools have some empty seats.
In some ways, the Fernandez move builds on a foundation of earlier innovation here. Under a 1970 state decentralization law, five of New York City's 32 school districts allow student transfers within their boundaries. East Harlem's District 4, where student reading and math scores dramatically improved under a choice program, is the most widely touted success story.
New York public high schools also offer a variation of choice through special programs in fields like computer science and law. More than half of all high school freshmen selected their schools.
Including private schools in any choice program, the variation favored by the Bush administration, adds considerably to the controversy. The issue of funding private schools with public money then takes center stage. Milwaukee is the only public school system that currently allows students to enroll in private schools at taxpayer expense.
Choice within public school systems has much broader support. President-elect Bill Clinton favors the concept and 13 states currently offer some form of school choice.
Yet concerns about the educational impact of increased choice are much the same under both private and public plans. Equity tops the list. In theory, low-income parents gain new opportunities. Yet many parents and educators are concerned that choice can work against integration, further isolating minority and low-income students.
While the increased competition from choice should cause weak schools to improve or shut, both bureaucracy and the need in most crowded systems to keep all schools going can prevent such results. "We don't have the luxury of closing a school that isn't working," insists United Federation of Teachers (UFT) spokeswoman Susan Amlung. UFT president Sandra Feldman has urged Chancellor Fernandez to make a major effort to inform each family about the program and to closely track student transfer patterns. The r easons for leaving schools must be pinpointed, she says, so that technical aid and other resources can be brought in to reverse the trend.
"The chancellor's real responsibility is to see that our local districts are accountable and that they don't fail any neighborhoods or groups of children," says Jeanne Frankl of the citizens' advocacy group Public Education Association.
Some members of the New York City Board of Education have voiced similar concerns, so Fernandez has offered widespread assurances. No admissions standards could be imposed on transfer students, for instance, that do not also apply to a school's neighborhood students. And popular schools could set up lotteries to ensure against discrimination.
Fernandez says he is preparing rules to guard against resegregated schools. He says he will try to get a state law to reimburse the city for transporting students outside their districts.
"There are still some things that have to be ironed out, but everybody's on the same page in terms of its being a good idea," insists Frank Sobrino, a spokesman for the New York City public schools. "Everybody's in agreement: `Let's make this work.' "
Despite several concerns, for a large city where many parents view the schools as faceless bureaucracies, choice can be a "liberating" experience for parents, says Ann Marcus, chairman of the education department at New York University.
"Even if student achievement only goes up a small amount in the short run, I think parents and others in the community feel more empowered and feel they're actually part of this school system," she says. "That is of great benefit to the children and to the teachers."