By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
"Open enrollment is going to make good schools look better, and it's pretty much close to the kiss of death for bad ones," says James Curlett, the principal of what is widely considered to be one of the state's best high schools, Mountain View in Mesa. ù At-risk funding: Senate Bill 1101, most likely the boilerplate for this summer's expected special session, calls for about $170 million in new spending for schools. According to Representative Graham, some of the money will go to teacher training, but most of it is targeted at at-risk programs.
Dr. Lynn Davey, a principal in a poor Phoenix district, used extra money from grants and budget overrides to design special programs for at-risk kids, including all-day kindergarten classes and an extended school year for those students. Though 90 percent of her student body is on the federal free-meal program, test scores and attendance have improved over the past few years--in part, she believes, because of the extra money. "It's absolutely crucial," Davey says.
@body:The consensus among educators is that decentralization works if the transition is well-planned and carefully structured, if participants are thoroughly trained to handle their new responsibilities and if school-district administrators are willing to let others share in meaningful decision-making.
The benefits of site-based decision-making are that it tends to involve more parents in school issues (you get more customer input," as one businessman explained), and it can boost teachers' morale by allowing them more control of their workday. Educators call this kind of involvement in reform "buy-in."
But in some applications, decentralization has been the empowerment of well-meaning but overmatched parents who become rubber stamps for the ranking administrator. Another risk is the creation of dozens, if not hundreds, of smaller fiefdoms from one larger bureaucracy.
Forms of decentralization have been in place (somewhat successfully) in Miami for a decade, and in Chicago (less successfully) since the late 1980s. Decentralization in Chicago created a site-based political maelstrom in almost every school. Elsewhere, reformers have had more success. The Creighton School District in east Phoenix began to decentralize six years ago and is considered such a success that district superintendent Don Covey now teaches seminars on site-based management to educators from other states.
There, school principal Pamela Eklund, working with her site-based council of teachers and parents, petitioned the school board for year-round classes two years ago. According to Covey, absenteeism among students is down nearly 20 percent at the school. Also, discipline has improved. Most impressive, Covey says, is that teacher absenteeism, typically a problem at schools with poorer students, is also down. "When you do something like this, it can't be a top-down decision," says Eklund. "It has to be broad-based." Eklund says she discovered while researching year-round schools that a similar scheduling experiment had recently failed in a neighboring, centralized district. "They didn't have any teacher support or parent support," she says. "They didn't have any 'buy-in.'"
@body:"In many cities, what happens after a school-choice plan goes into effect, the savvy parents--the journalists, lawyers and business leaders--hear quickly which are the better schools, the ones with terrific principals, the ones who have the business partners giving them computers, and they tend to dominate those schools," says Jonathan Kozol, author of Savage Inequalities, a study of funding inequities in American schools. "They turn that school into a pretty little place, a boutique school. They become a Bonwit Teller in a district of K marts. And that's not fair." Kozol says that school choice attracts "in an insidious way" supporters who don't tend to think of the common good. He's seen it, he says, in his home state of Massachusetts, which has adopted a limited school-choice approach.
"We've seen again and again parents working hard to advance the interests of their own kids at whatever the cost to other children, who may be every bit as needy."
James Curlett, principal at Mountain View High School--a Mesa school brimming with overachievers--agrees that widespread open enrollment could harm poorer schools by robbing them of "peer role models." Curlett says his school's high academic reputation is largely attributable to elaborate efforts to honor students who set good examples academically. The school's booster club hosts elaborate end-of-the-year awards ceremonies--typically the kind of functions reserved for athletes--for top students. And Curlett, who is retiring after 17 years, early on established a Wall of Fame for the school's honor students.
"When it started, it was two pictures on a great big wall," he says. "You've got to find a way to get kids to believe that succeeding isn't something to be ashamed of." Though no statewide school-choice statute yet exists in Arizona, "there's more open enrollment than you think," says one local administrator.
In fact, more students here attend schools outside their neighborhoods than in some states that get credit for being educationally enlightened.
Minnesota, for example, legislated school choice in 1988, and less than 1 percent of that state's students have chosen to transfer between districts. That state's public school system is regularly lauded as one of the nation's best. But in even less stellar states where school choice has been officially encouraged, most kids won't leave the school that's closest to their homes.