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School Choice: Symbolic Step or Sweeping Reform? : Education: New state laws are praised as giving parents more control. Critics say little will change.


All Sam Bernal wanted to do was enroll his daughter, an aspiring interior decorator, in a high school that offered more courses to develop her artistic skills.

But the San Pedro father soon found that his address locked him into the Los Angeles Unified School District. It took nearly three months of paperwork and a trial-like hearing in front of a panel of educators before his daughter was awarded a permit to attend Torrance High School.

"I wouldn't wish that experience on anyone," Bernal said. "I thought as a parent I should have the right to send my kid to any school. . . . I thought this was the land of the free. If we would have been able to choose where our kid goes to school in the first place, life would have been much easier for everyone."

Soon, parents like Bernal may have more options when it comes to selecting public schools, a decision that has long been dictated by rigid attendance boundaries.

Now, a public school draws its students from the surrounding neighborhood, with exceptions made mainly to accommodate day-care needs and to keep a child close to where a parent works.

Under two laws that take effect Jan. 1, parents will be able to select any school within their home district that has space for their child, and local school boards can decide whether to open enrollment to students from other districts.

The laws embrace an increasingly popular concept that educators call "school choice." Proponents of the laws say they represent a broad departure from tradition in California and hail their adoption as a major public education reform. But others contend that the laws have so many restrictions that the average parent will find little has really changed.

"This is not a brand new day dawning," said Theodore R. Mitchell, dean of the UCLA Graduate School of Education. "The bills are important in that they have put into state law real choice policy for the first time in California. . . . But I would say the effects are more symbolic."

Assemblyman Charles R. Quackenbush (R-San Jose), who drafted the bill permitting transfers between districts, called the law "a rather profound new reform for public education. . . . No longer will students be the property of school districts, but the responsibility of parents who now have the authority to send their child to any public school."

But the timing of the legislation may have more to do with politics than with reform.

Supporters hope that the new laws will take the punch out of Proposition 174, the voucher initiative on the November ballot, which would offer parents tax-supported scholarships worth about $2,600 to help pay for private school tuition. The constitutional amendment also calls for open enrollment in all public schools.

Now, voucher opponents argue, the debate over the initiative can focus solely on whether tax dollars should be used to support private education.

"The only real compelling part of this scheme was the public school choice part. Now it is no longer an issue," said Rick Manter, campaign manager of the Committee to Educate Against Vouchers. "This drives the stake through the heart of the monster."

Quackenbush and Assemblywoman Dede Alpert (D-Coronado), who authored the measure allowing intradistrict transfers, said the unexpected placement of the voucher initiative on the fall ballot prompted swift passage of their bills.

"This was an opportunity to show that it's not choice we object to, it's the tax-financed vouchers for private schools we object to," Alpert said.

Gov. Pete Wilson signed the measures July 20, calling them "reforms that were unimaginable just a year or two ago."

Quackenbush tried for five years to pass similar legislation but was stymied by strong opposition from the powerful California Teachers Assn., which only recently lifted its objections. The organization strongly opposes vouchers and is expected to raise millions for the campaign to defeat Proposition 174.

Ralph Flynn, CTA executive director, denied that his organization dropped opposition to the choice laws to deal a blow to the voucher campaign.

"The reality is we have been progressively moving in the direction of these bills," Flynn said.

Supporters of Proposition 174, called the Parental Choice in Education Amendment, said the new laws are flawed because they restrict the number of students who can leave a district, severely limiting parental choice.

"This is not choice, it's bait and switch," said Sean Walsh, spokesman for the Yes on 174 campaign. "The reason you are seeing choice in some form now is that politicians are reacting to us. They see this upswell and they have to give themselves some kind of cover."

He predicts that the new laws will have little impact on the public debate over the initiative. "Nearly 1 million people signed the petition on the ballot," he said. "You can't ignore" its popularity.

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