Miracle on 109th Street

Schools compete, parents choose, students thrive…as Harlem goes, so goes the nation?


Fifteen years ago, East Harlem's public schools were the worst in New York City. The district ranked last in reading and math scores, with only 15 percent of its students reading at grade level. At the district's Benjamin Franklin High School, only 7 percent of the students graduated. Daily attendance fell below 50 percent. Dropouts abounded, while hope dwindled.

Today, Community School District Four ranks about 16th out of 32 districts in test scores, with 64 percent of its students reading at or above grade level. Franklin High—renamed the Manhattan Center for Science and Math—now sends 96 percent of its students to college. Overall, the once-reviled district "imports" close to 2,000 students from outside East Harlem (in the process adding variety to what were once virtually all-minority schools). Instead of producing ignorance and despair, District Four has, Hofstra University researcher Mary Ann Raywid writes, "romanced the children of Harlem into the pleasures of the life of the mind."

What turned District Four around? It hasn't become wealthier. Neither the city, state, or federal government seized the reins of reform from school personnel. Class sizes didn't shrink to 15 students per teacher. In fact, none of the ideas championed by the National Education Association and the Washington education establishment are responsible for the miracle in East Harlem.

What has changed is that city bureaucrats no longer decide where students will go to school. Parents do.

It seems an unlikely venue for such a reform. On East 109th Street—the heart of Spanish Harlem—the romance of learning is obscured by the gritty realism of inner-city poverty. Rubble from crumbling buildings blocks the sidewalk. The street is noticeably free of Yellow taxis; they won't cruise here. Even in mid-morning, bedraggled addicts line up, cash in hand, along stretches of dilapidated storefronts, waiting anxiously for a crack dealer.

But also on East 109th Street, only a few hundred feet away from a "crack comer," stands on imposing five-story school building known as The Complex. Formerly a neighborhood junior high, it now houses four "alternative schools": the TAG School, for gifted elementary students; the Key School, for junior-high students who score four or five years below grade level; the Career Academy, a standard junior high that also introduces kids to the premium placed on skills and training in the workplace; and the Harbor School, a performing-arts junior high.

Security guards wait just inside the front door, screening visitors. Given the menagerie outside, says the district's alternative schools director, John Falco, it is important for The Complex to be "a place where kids feel safe."

It takes only a few minutes in The Complex to feel its romance. In one classroom, elementary school children read aloud in French. In another, a chorus of teens sings a complex a capella number, while rehearsing choreography they helped to create. In still another room, a multi-ethnic class of prekindergarteners greets Falco with a spirited "Hi, John!"

For over a decade, District Four has harnessed the forces of choice and competition to transform education for East Harlem's 15,000 students. In 1973, faced with a failing system that seemed immune to conventional nostrums, the powers that be decided to experiment. They created three alternative schools that would specialize in particular subjects or teaching styles and be open to students from around the district and even outside it. Each year after that, new alternatives sprang up. By 1981, there were no longer any traditional neighborhood junior highs in East Harlem; all the students were going to schools selected from among 18 by their parents. And although children come from other parts of the city to attend Harlem's alternative schools, about 90 percent of their students live in the district.

"If you'd seen this school 15 years ago you'd be amazed," says Leslie Moore, director of the Harbor School for performing arts in The Complex. "It was a terrible place." Teachers say that in the alternative schools, they are respected, included in decision making, provided with support services, and get enthusiastic parental involvement. Consequently, teaching is a joy. Security guards have even reported a few teachers for staying too late in the evening.

"We've extended ownership of these schools to the kids, to their parents, and to the teachers," says Seymour Fliegel, former deputy superintendent in the district. The walls of The Complex, covered not with grime or graffiti but with student artwork and snapshots of Harbor School productions, reflect this sense of ownership.

The success of District Four signifies more than just the transformation of one school or even one community. As Raywid says, "If a renaissance in public education can occur in East Harlem, it can happen in any city in America."

Choice and competition, concepts once tied exclusively to the moribund voucher and tuition tax credit movements, are cropping up in public school systems around the country. Despite desperate efforts by some teachers' groups and local bureaucrats, parental choice—along with a closely related notion, school autonomy—claims the national spotlight. In January, both Ronald Reagan and George Bush praised choice at a White House workshop on the subject. "Further expansion of choice is a national imperative," Bush said.

While presidential leadership can make headlines and publicize outstanding pilot programs, the case for parental choice must really be made on the local level. It is a gradual process. Cities such as Chicago, Detroit, and Boston are first decentralizing school districts, giving individual schools control over their own curricula, personnel, and support services, while reformers in each city design choice plans. And in many areas—from Milwaukee and Buffalo to the entire state of Minnesota—parents already exercise the power of choice.

Parental choice is not vouchers cloaked in a new guise. In these choice schemes, competition for government funds exists only among public schools. If parents wish to send their kids to private or parochial schools, they still must pay twice—in taxes for the public system and in tuition to the school. For this reason, some long-time voucher proponents criticize the current wave of reform as superficial or even destructive. Chester E. Finn, a conservative who served in Reagan's Department of Education, claims that the push for a more comprehensive voucher system "has been sidetracked" by the clamor for public school choice.

Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, agrees with Finn in his assessment—but Shanker isn't complaining. A foe of vouchers, he predicts that parental choice in public schools "is the best protection against vouchers or tuition tax credits."

It is true that many champions of the current parental choice movement are strong supporters of public education, opposing any plan that would encompass private or parochial schools. This may, in fact, explain the current momentum behind choice. "People associate vouchers with conservative religious zealots, while the concept of parental choice appeals to all," says Jeanne Allen, education policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation.

Choice has spread most rapidly in inner-city minority communities, not traditional hotbeds of free-market ferment. The schools there were typically in such dire straits that parents and some teachers and administrators were willing to try radical reforms not necessarily popular among the education establishment. "When we were dead last," says Complex principal Bernie Diamond, "the feeling was, 'what do we have to lose?'"

Parents, in fact, blame the establishment for bad schools, viewing the last two decades of hype and "reform," when real education expenditures doubled and average SAT scores fell almost 100 points, as a colossal failure. With the hype came more centralization and bureaucracy—to oversee the reforms, of course. In Chicago, the number of administrators in the school system blossomed 47 percent from 1976 to 1986, while the number of teachers declined 8 percent and school enrollments fell by 18 percent. Currently, the New York City system employs one administrator for every 150 students; by contrast, the city's Catholic school system employs one administrator for every 4,000 students. Not only did the centralization make parents feel more powerless about their children's schools, but as education researcher John Chubb of the Brookings Institution argues, it made most schools worse by stripping principals and teachers of autonomy.

In Detroit, parents are taking back the schools. In a 1988 school board election, a groundswell of public support for "local empowerment" swept four challengers into office, defeating incumbents with close ties to Mayor Coleman Young. School reform is but one part of a reform program, involving inner-city development and tax cuts, proposed to a receptive minority community by Keith Butler, pastor of the Word of Faith Christian Center, and other community leaders.

"We want to get the power down to the school level, where learning actually occurs," says Lawrence Patrick, a lawyer and leader of the empowerment movement who now sits on the school board. When the 1989–90 school year begins, the new coalition plans to "empower" up to 40 schools (about 15 percent of the Detroit system). Each school will have a leadership team, made up of the principal and representatives from the school's teachers, parents, and support staff, the business community, social service organizations, area colleges, and churches. Though the school board would require the teaching of basic skills, virtually all other decisions—curriculum, personnel, purchasing of supplies, construction—will be made by the individual school.

Eventually, Patrick says, all 250 schools in the district will become autonomous. He expects that many schools will select themes or specialize in certain subjects. "When local people make the decisions, there'll be diversity," he says. "And diversity will require choice."

Moves toward school autonomy, not only in Detroit but in similar plans enacted in Chicago and in Rochester, New York, are viewed by both their advocates and their foes as important first steps toward choice—encouraging school personnel to think of themselves as partners in an entrepreneurial enterprise. Chubb of Brookings points out that while school autonomy allows principals and teachers the latitude to be creative, it also limits the city school board's ability to police corruption and waste. Empowerment is only one word on concerned parents' lips; another is accountability. The only way to provide autonomy without losing accountability, Chubb contends, is to replace top-down management with the bottom-up market power of parents. They won't have to attend board meetings or wait until election day to protest school mismanagement. They can just send their kids elsewhere.

During the 1970s, choice first appeared in many districts in the form of magnet schools that, like the alternative schools of East Harlem, specialized in particular subjects. The point was to induce voluntary integration in troubled city systems. In Maryland's Prince George's County, for instance, east of Washington, D.C., parents can now choose among 41 magnet schools rather than send their kids to assigned schools. This has not only achieved significant desegregation, but county students now outperform 65 percent of their peers nationwide on standardized tests.

As magnet schools proliferate in a district, compulsory student assignment becomes irrelevant—in effect leading to full "open enrollment," as it did in Harlem's junior highs. Even on the elementary level, District Four parents have five alternatives to their neighborhood schools, including The Complex's TAG School. In addition to The Complex schools, junior-high choices include a progressive "open education" school, a sports school, a science and math academy, and other specialties. When students reach high-school age, they can choose to attend the district's science and math or progressive-ed high schools, or they can attend one of New York's magnet schools.

District Four puts out a booklet for parents describing the various choices and provides press clips about them. When their children are in sixth grade, parents go through a district orientation program. Then the schools take over. "The principals have to go out and get clients," Fliegel says. "So you see principals running around with their Kodak carousels and telling the kids about all the wonderful things in their schools."

Each student selects three schools in order of preference. About 90 percent receive their first choice (local kids are placed before students from outside the district). And what happens if no one chooses a particular school? It shuts down. Since the program began, two schools in the district have gone "into bankruptcy." In one case, the school, which had failed to attract students with its health-related program, closed for good. (The building is still used by other schools.) In the other, Maritime Junior High—specializing in marine sciences—closed for a year, then reopened in a new building with a new principal and mostly new teaching staff.

East Harlem is a model for district-level parental choice. But Minnesota has taken the idea a step further with a statewide plan. Reform came in stages, starting with a local empowerment drive that enabled schools to control their own personnel and program. Then in 1985, juniors and seniors were given the option of taking courses for high-school credit at Minnesota colleges and universities, with the student's state funding routed accordingly. In 1987, the state began an open enrollment plan for "at-risk" students—those a grade behind academically or two grades behind on test scores. At-risk students could take themselves, and their funding, to any high school they wanted, including alternative and private schools (sectarian schools were still excluded).

Finally, last year the choice program was extended to all students in the state—though even nonsectarian private schools were excluded at this stage. By the 1990–91 academic year, all local school systems must enact an enrollment policy that guarantees admittance for any student, except when the desired school is full or admission would violate desegregation orders. Again, the state tracks aid from a student's home district to the new one, while poor families receive transportation assistance to give them an opportunity to attend distant schools.

"This is the marketplace at work in Minnesota education for the first time," says Robert J. Wedl, the state's deputy commissioner of education. Because of that, he expects a shakeout in the market, as smaller districts join together to form more efficient and effective schools in the face of competition. And if a school district cannot keep students, it may have to go bankrupt. "Our emphasis is on quality education for students, not on saving districts," he says.

During the past school year, about 7,000 students used the college option, while about 500 actually attended schools outside their home district. But Wedl expects the numbers to increase significantly when the plan becomes mandatory in 1990. And the forces of competition and local autonomy are expected to rejuvenate schools within each district.

When enacted on the local or state level, parental choice plans do face some energetic opposition—chiefly from teachers' unions, professional associations, and government bureaucrats. In January, Bill Honig, California's top educational official, announced his support for a plan to let parents choose "any school they want." The California Teachers Association immediately attacked the idea, charging that it ignores the plight of poorer students and districts. The program, they complained, would help brighter students leave faltering schools—a process they call "creaming." The union has strong legislative allies. "I think it's a very elitist approach," said Teresa Hughes, who chairs the state assembly's education committee, when the Los Angeles Times asked her reaction.

On the national level, the chief teachers' lobby—the National Education Association—also denigrates parental choice. "Education is not just another consumer item," sniffs NEA President Mary Hatwood Futrell. While not formally opposing parental choice, the NEA argues that choice plans must be prepared to help schools that lose their students. But of course, this would in effect subsidize failure. In the East Harlem and Minnesota plans, failure means shutdown—a powerful incentive for schools to improve.

And not all teachers are opposed. In Minnesota, teachers joined superintendents and school boards in opposing the college course option for juniors and seniors, but it was enacted anyway in 1985. By 1988, Wedl says, most teachers had switched sides, seeing in comprehensive choice reform a chance to gain more control over their own classrooms and lesson plans.

The same coalition helped bring about East Harlem's transformation, because teachers were promised choice, too—they could select the schools where they would work. "Everyone likes to blame the unions," Fliegel says, "but that's really just a cop-out." If properly pitched, reform pioneers claim, choice can build a sizable and powerful constituency among frustrated teachers and principals.

Another source of opposition to choice comes from civil rights groups and their allies, who worry about resegregation. The Raleigh News and Observer, one of the most outspoken proponents of desegregation in the 1960s South, has called parental choice a "tired old 'freedom of choice' idea, darling of segregationists, dressed up in not very new clothes."

Many of the prominent choice plans, however, were designed specifically to accomplish "painless desegregation." In Milwaukee, a magnet school system ordered by the federal court to reduce segregation expanded to a full-fledged open enrollment plan, offering parents' choice among 147 schools. White families that once moved to the suburbs to escape inferior city schools began clamoring to get back into Milwaukee's schools. The city schools agreed to let them in—but only after the suburban schools agreed to accept city students, as well. Now, Wisconsin Gov. Tommy G. Thompson is introducing legislation to create a statewide choice program like Minnesota's, except that nonsectarian private schools would be included along with public schools.

The empowerment movements in Detroit and Chicago are inner-city phenomena, composed almost entirely of minorities. And in Boston, Charles Glenn—a Democrat who helped design the city's controversial busing program in the 1970s—is crafting a decentralized, parental choice plan to improve the city schools.

Nevertheless, the antichoice forces can be formidable. When the Massachusetts legislature okayed an open enrollment pilot program last year, Gov. Michael Dukakis vetoed it. The bill had reached his desk just before he was to be nominated at the Democratic presidential convention in July. Under heavy pressure from both state and national teachers' unions and other special-interest groups, Dukakis nixed the plan—but said the concept was a good one. Taking the comment as a hint of future support, the bill's sponsor in the state senate plans to reintroduce the measure this year.

There's good reason to think that parental choice will eventually overcome its opposition, both in Massachusetts and across the country. The results of the most recent reform binge, touched off by the 1983 publication of A Nation at Risk, are now coming under close scrutiny by researchers—many of whom, like Chubb, are hardly conservative hacks. Chubb and Stanford University's Terry Moe have conducted a survey of 1,000 public and private schools, testing students and interviewing principals and teachers. Their findings are likely to be circulated widely throughout the education community: that factors such as high expenditures per pupil and fewer pupils per teacher do not make the difference between good schools and bad ones, and that schools are largely products of their environments. Chubb and Moe argue that school autonomy and parental involvement are important determinants of this school environment and hold the key to promoting education equity, a goal that many liberals value.

Meanwhile, advocates of private school vouchers and tuition tax credits shouldn't worry that public school choice will steal their thunder. As parents gain control over their children's schooling, their expectations will surely rise. Market reforms, once unleashed, will be difficult for local governments to contain. One has only to look at the cases of East Harlem, Minnesota, Milwaukee, and Detroit to see the pattern: school autonomy and parental involvement lead to specialization, and schools gradually proliferate until the district has de facto open enrollment.

There's another step in the process, clearly visible but not yet reached. After a few years of choosing among public schools, predicts Heritage's Jeanne Allen, parents may well look at private schools in their community and ask: "Why not there?" And, as hapless school bureaucrats across the country have discovered, demanding parents are a political voice best heeded.

Former REASON intern John M. Hood is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic.