National movement for 'school choice' embraced in city

City schools leader has made options for parents, students trademark of administration

February 02, 2011|By Erica L. Green, The Baltimore Sun

Three years ago, Sylvia Paylor was ready to upend her family's life so her fourth-grader could get a good education. Concerned about the neighborhood middle school, she told daughter Ayanna that when she left Cecil Elementary, they might have to move in with another family to save money for a private school.

But then Paylor met Andrés Alonso, the new city schools superintendent, who had already pushed a dozen schools toward overhauls. "I asked him flat out: What am I supposed to do?' " Paylor recalls. "He told me that if I hold on and wait, by the time she was ready to go to middle school, she would have choices."

Today, Ayanna is a seventh-grader at the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women, a public charter school created under Alonso, the first all-female middle school in the district — and an example of the reforms that have put Baltimore at the forefront of Maryland's school choice movement.

The bulk of Maryland's charter schools are in Baltimore, and many have sprouted during Alonso's tenure. A staunch supporter of empowering parents and creating competition among schools, he has made efforts to relieve families from being "prisoners of their ZIP codes" a trademark of his administration.

Yet in many parts of Maryland and the nation, school choice remains a contentious issue — there are only 20 school-choice programs, in a dozen states.

In recent weeks, policymakers and more than 150 national education advocacy groups have called for districts to use the same strategy as Baltimore, galvanizing support for charter school growth, scholarships and tuition tax credits for alternative schools, and even virtual and home schooling.

And Baltimore — where some schools have flourished while others risk floundering because of low enrollments and smaller budgets — highlights the growing debate about whether "choice" can strengthen a national education system.

Opponents say education should not be treated as a commodity, prompting schools and families to compete for a product that is a right for every student. They also argue that the private self-interest of families will not help public school districts boost standards for all schools.

"Choice tends to create a system of winners and losers, with a few high-performing schools, a few awful ones, and most no better than the regular schools," said Diane Ravitch, research professor of education at New York University and historian of education.

Ravitch said that "school-choice" programs introduce friction into districts, splitting communities as parents battle over space and who gets which school. "So instead of communities pulling together and coalescing around their schools, they fall apart because they are competing with one another."

Proponents of school-choice say that families are unjustly restricted to underperforming schools or alternatives that are lackluster or expensive. School leaders, including Alonso, believe that choice can motivate an entire school system to raise student achievement.

"The old systems that bind and restrict choice have been about keeping alive monopolies that have been mediocre at best," Alonso said. "Parent choice is an engine to develop excellence because it can be an engine for accountability."

The controversy about expanding school choice coincides with discussions about charter schools — often considered the superior choice to public schools — and how they can change the dynamics of a school district.

Ravitch said that numerous studies have shown that charter school results are similar to those of regular public schools. Last year, Baltimore's charter schools noted a 5 percentage-point lead in the number of students who showed proficiency in math and reading when compared with traditional schools.

Organizations that monitor Maryland's education reforms say that calls for more school choice address a deficiency in the state, where laws and unions stifle charter school growth.

"We decided to play a role in echoing the call for something that we hear from parents all the time, that our kids are not one-size-fits-all, and that we don't need a one-size-fits-all system," said Jeanne Allen, president for the Center for Education Reform, a progressive think tank that helped organize National School Choice Week last month.

"The reality is two-fold: There's an imperative justice in providing immediate alternatives to failure. There should not be one child stuck in a school today who is not getting what they need," she said.

Allen said that Maryland is among the least progressive states in the country in providing charter options for parents and that "Baltimore is the only beacon of light we have."

Since 2008, Alonso has expanded the city's charter network to more than 30, and developed 13 transformation programs that include combined middle-high schools with a theme and college and/or career prep focus. Meanwhile, he has closed dozens of failing schools.

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