They Choose or We Lose

Parents are panicking about proposals to change how students are assigned to public schools in Seattle. Could this transform the city?

According to plan, Maria Gutierrez is supposed to be filling out a Seattle Public Schools application to enroll her daughter in kindergarten next year. Now the Lake City mom doesn't know what to do. The school district has announced that to save on transportation costs, it is considering drastically reducing or eliminating the choice system that allows parents to pick from schools throughout the city. "We bought our house in Seattle specifically because we believed we could choose a school," says Gutierrez, who might have moved instead into the Shoreline or Eastside districts. She views the nearby school to which she would likely be assigned if choice were eliminated, Olympic Hills, as far less attractive than some of the schools she has been considering a little to her south. "It doesn't have a language program," she says of Olympic Hills. "It doesn't have a PTA that raises $200,000 a year."

Stressed by the uncertainty, she recently called the Shoreline district to find out about getting a boundary waiver that would allow her child to go there. Similarly concerned, many of her friends are applying to private schools. She calls what's going on "fright flight."

The backlash has begun. The school district isn't contemplating making any changes to its choice system until the 2006–07 school year. With the district kicking off community forums on the issue early this month, the scale of potential changes isn't widely understood. But already there is a palpable sense of panic among parents, compounded by a range of other cuts the district is contemplating in the face of a financial crisis, including closure of numerous schools.

The looming school closings have garnered most of the publicity, but the possible scrapping of the choice system is equally if not more momentous. "It's not just tweaking," says longtime schools activist Melissa Westbrook. "It would change the landscape of how we do things." It could not only affect enrollment in the Seattle Public Schools, prompting some to flee to suburban and private schools, it could alter the composition of the city, worsening economic and racial stratification. You can bet that if their kids could only go to one neighborhood school, parents with means would make darn sure that they moved into a neighborhood with a good school.

And those without means? "If they take away our choice, we're stuck with whatever we're given," says Sharon Nakamura, a Beacon Hill mom whose daughter attends TOPS in Capitol Hill. What you're given can be a problem, given the highly uneven performance of schools around the city, especially in the South End. Students at TOPS, for example, score three times as well on the math portion of the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) as do students at Dearborn Park, the closest elementary to Nakamura. Roughly 77 percent of TOPS kids passed, versus just 26 percent of those at Dearborn Park. There's almost as large a gap on the writing portion. Or take McGilvra and Martin Luther King elementary schools, which score 84 and 27 percent, respectively, on the math WASL.

McGilvra and Martin Luther King lie in adjoining neighborhoods, meeting at the southern tip of Madison Valley. If the district moved to a mandatory assignment system, it would draw boundary lines between such schools to determine who gets to go where. Although, at the elementary level, the district already has so-called "reference areas" that it could employ to help determine a student's priority when applying to popular schools, there's bound to be pressure to fiddle with the lines. "It's going to be worse than political redistricting," says parent Judith Leckrone Lee of the Genesee neighborhood. "It would be a block-by-block battle."

The district has offered two rough plans for discussion. One would assign a student to a school based on such geographic boundaries—the choices being "specific" alternative schools presumably designated for an area and, possibly, special needs programs. (Which current programs would qualify as alternative and special needs is very much up in the air.) The second option would allow for a very limited choice among, say, two or three schools, with the same exceptions as the first model. This would be a greatly scaled-back version of the current elementary "cluster" model. Although students now can attend any school in the city if they can get in, they only receive transportation within their cluster of eight or so schools, unless they're going to alternative schools or qualify for some other exception. In its proposals, the school district has not given an indication whether a grandfather clause would allow students to stay where they are now.

Some district officials question the importance of choice. Board member Dick Lilly, in an interview a few months ago, said choice within clusters was more "psychological" than "a real one"—which might be true in some cases but certainly not, for example, in the central cluster that contains McGilvra and Martin Luther King. Superintendent Raj Manhas recently told The Seattle Times: "The question is, how many kids have we really helped with choice? I think it's a small number, primarily at high school." Manhas says now that he was speaking specifically about the impact of choice on the performance of minority kids—which, it is true, is on average disturbingly low.

Certainly, the current choice system is far from ideal. It is a maze of "reference schools" and "clusters" and an elaborate tier of tiebreaking factors for getting into popular schools. It taxes even the most educated and rewards those who know how to work the system. It is also not the most conducive to neighborhood cohesion. Pat Murakami, a Mount Baker mom, recalls that she once facilitated a chess club for neighborhood elementary school kids. "We had 28 kids, and 14 different schools were represented," says Murakami. "I don't think that makes for a cohesive neighborhood." Now, through her new role as president of the Mount Baker Community Club, Murakami has launched an effort to turn John Muir Elementary—in the neighborhood but largely eschewed by white, middle-class residents—into a true neighborhood school. Though her child is almost finished with elementary school elsewhere, she and others have joined the PTSA, raised money for the school, and urged local parents of preschoolers to go there. "If all those people who believe in public education went back to the neighborhood schools," she believes, they could focus their energies on making them great.

Yet even Murakami admits that "this model is not going to work in every neighborhood." A large number of affluent folks who can lend their energy to fund-raising and volunteering is not universally available. Whether parents will devote themselves enthusiastically to neighborhood schools if they are forced upon them is another question. Choice is deeply ingrained in the Seattle school culture. Parents see it as a way of finding the best fit for their children, not only academically but stylistically. It is prevailed upon by families across racial, economic, and geographic boundaries.

This comes across strikingly when looking at a map the district has prepared that shows a neighborhood-by-neighborhood breakdown of percentages of public school students who actually attend a school in their reference area. The numbers are surprisingly low in every part of the city, from the affluent neighborhood around Wedgwood Elementary, which only 36 percent of surrounding public-school kids attend, to Brighton Elementary in lower-income Rainier Valley, which draws just 24 percent of neighborhood kids who attend public school. Everyone else is using choice to attend a public school in a different neighborhood, be it one half a mile away or one all the way across town.

That explains why the community forums held so far in both the north and south parts of town unleashed a torrent of negativity. "A lot of us will just choose to go elsewhere," said parent Sarah Pedersen at the Mercer Middle School forum last week on Beacon Hill, expressing the prevailing sentiment. Parents suggested other alternatives to cut down on transportation costs, such as charging a minimal fee for each bused child, on a sliding scale.

Pedersen later relates that she lives in Columbia City and has two children already in school, one at Garfield High and one at Orca Elementary, an alternative school that is also the closest to her. But she worries about where her 2-year-old will go to school. She thinks that limitations on choice will make alternative schools like Orca much more popular and thus harder to get into. If her daughter isn't able to follow her son there, she says, "I'd probably pull them both." She would look at private schools, or she might move, even though she loves the diversity of her neighborhood.

Others were already leaning toward private schools. The current proposals are pushing them over the edge. "I had been hoping we could find a public school solution," says Kathleen Levine, who lives in the Roosevelt district and has a child who will enter kindergarten next year. She says, however, "if anything, the district is getting its act less together rather than more." She's applied only to a nearby private school.

"If you don't want to do this and you don't want to do that, then where do we go?" asks Superintendent Manhas, apparently referring to the negative feedback the district has received on several of its proposals, including choice. "We don't have an option not to do anything." His financial people estimate that the district will face a $20 million deficit in 2006–07, in part because of $5 million in negotiated teacher raises and in part because of inflation of routine costs. The district spends about $26 million on transportation. But much of that money is reimbursed by the state and with levy money. In effect, busing costs the district $8 million. Because the district is legally bound to provide transportation to certain students, including those in special education, it would save as little as $4 million if it eliminated choice. The district would be completely restructured for the equivalent of chump change.

Even less might be saved if enrollment, and therefore state funding, drops. Says board President Brita Butler-Wall, "The question becomes: How much of a flight like that becomes counterproductive financially?"

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