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All We Are Saying Is Give Choice a Chance : Apparent Disinterest Shouldn't Doom LAUSD Effort

September 05, 1993

It was with high hopes that the Los Angeles Unified School District recently launched a pilot program that eliminated attendance boundaries for a group of elementary schools. Parents whose children were enrolled at those schools, in the San Fernando Valley's Sylmar area, were allowed to choose freely among those campuses, based on whatever had attracted them.

LAUSD students have been able to transfer to other schools through magnet programs geared toward desegregation goals, and through a permit process mainly designed to accommodate day care needs and to keep a child relatively close to where their parents work. But the Sylmar experiment was to be the mammoth district's first pure choice program.

To prevent the chaos of mass migrations from one or another of the seven Sylmar campuses, a total of only 185 slots were made available out of a pool of some 6,250 youngsters. And the schools--Dyer Street, El Dorado, Gridley Street, Harding Street, Herrick Avenue, Hubbard Street, and Sylmar--were soon gathering information for brochures touting the best that they had to offer.

Unfortunately, the choice plan might appear to be anything but a rousing success at this point.

So far, for example, Gridley Elementary has lost 13 students and gained nine. Dyer lost eight and also gained nine. Five students left Harding, and 20 others transferred there. One student left El Dorado, and three switched to that campus. Sylmar Elementary lost 30 students, and 11 came in to replace them. Herrick gained 15 transfers, and did not lose any students. Hubbard fared best, gaining 42 students and losing one.

In sum, the figures represent less than one-third of the amount of movement that was possible under the pilot's already rigid limitations. In fact, most transfers had not a whit to do with the brochures touting what each school had to offer. They were mainly transfers from the five schools that had year-round school calendars, to the two (Herrick and Hubbard) that had traditional September-to-June calendars.

But this is not a sign that the LAUSD's fledgling choice program has stumbled out of the starting blocks; nor is it in an indication that parents are so fed up with the LAUSD in general that nothing short of a breakup of the district will pique their educational interests. It would also be grossly incorrect to assume that the only choice program that will inspire parents is a voucher plan that would offer parents public money to pay for private or parochial school tuition, to the great and perhaps irreparable detriment of the public schools.

This apparent lack of interest in the Sylmar experiment was predictable for several reasons, and should in no way discourage the broader school choice program--within the LAUSD--that should follow.

First, even in the worst urban school districts, such as that in Washington, D.C., parents tend to be somewhat satisfied with the elementary schools, where the campuses (and the students) are more easily managed. It is in the secondary school years where confidence tends to wane, where there appear to be fewer strong and well-run schools, and where interest peaks in private and parochial alternatives. The true test of choice in the LAUSD will come when it is expanded to the middle schools and the high schools.

Also, the Sylmar experiment was announced very late in the year, in June, with little time for preparation. Plus, it was only offered in Sylmar, which made the transfer choices very limited indeed.

Viewed in that light, the Sylmar experiment does not seem so unimpressive, and it is clearly the preferable "choice," so to speak, between the alternatives of an immediate breakup of the LAUSD and a voucher/private school choice plan that would strip far too much in the way of resources from the public schools.

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