The State of Educational Reform in New York City
This paper is about the experiences of a group of public school educators, students and parents in New York City's East Harlem school district, referred to locally as Community School District 4. It is also about the use of choice as the conceptual framework for the organization of public education in that community. This paper is being presented at a time when growing despair about the state of public education within New York City coincides with the emergence of a national consensus on the importance of choice in educational reform. Curiously, the public debate about the future of public education in New York City has included little serious discussion of the choice concept. Widespread dissatisfaction with the current form of school organization and governance has, until now, yielded a rehashing of twenty-year-old arguments about the relative merits of centralization vs. decentralization. Most reform proposals that have been discussed in New York City consist of alternative bureaucratic solutions to the schools' crisis. Some proposals would replace the current combination of central and district-level bureauc-racies with five borough-based bureaucracies. Other proposals would retain the central Board of Education and its administrative organization while increasing the number of community school districts from the current 32 to 59 to coincide with local planning boards. Additional proposals seek to reform the process by which local school boards are chosen. Some would simplify the electoral process and move school board elections to November in an attempt to increase voter turnout from the currently abysmal six percent; other proposals would replace elected boards with appointed ones.
While the current debate about the future of public education in New York City has been limited to arguments about the administrative structure of the school system, some important issues have not been given proper attention. Among these are the relationship between governance of schools and effective school practices, and the importance of school-level management as a focus of reform.
The Concept of Parental Choice in Education
At the national level, the debate about public education has not been about the structure of school boards or the size and organization of school districts. The debate has been about what educational practices seem to work best and what institutional arrangements seem most suited to encouraging and supporting those practices. Much of the national debate has centered on strategies for freeing teachers and principals from bureaucratic rules and regulations and allowing them the freedom to innovate and develop effective practices within their schools. The proponents of greater parental choice in education argue that this type of school empowerment can occur most dramatically in systems where parents areallowed to choose the school that their child will attend and accountability to the central school board is replaced by accountability to parents.
Parental choice in public education is a concept that has moved to the forefront of the national debate on educational reform. President Bush has identified the expansion of parental choice among public schools as "a national imperative." The Governors of Arkansas, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, Tennessee and Wisconsin have recommended programs of parental choice as part of their educational reform efforts.
The rationale behind programs of parental choice is that innovation and excellence in education can best be achieved by requiring schools to attract their clientele instead of having access to a captive market. An important corollary to parental choice is the empowerment of school staff to design and implement their own educational programs so that they may present parents with unique choices. Under the concept of choice, schools are seen as independent agents, primarily accountable to their clients, not to a central bureaucracy or Board of Education.
Opponents of parental choice often argue that such programs cannot work in low-income or impoverished communities. They argue that only middle or upper class parents are sophisticated enough to take advantage of choice and that adoption of choice programs would result in the abandonment of schools serving poor or minority students. As will be seen in this report, District 4 in East Harlem provides a perfect proving ground to test this argument against choice.
The concept of parental choice in education has received little serious attention in the debate about the needs of the New York City schools. This is unfortunate because one of the few school systems in the country that has had experience with a choice system over time is one of New York's own community school districts, District 4 in East Harlem. This district has been studied as a model of effective urban education by the federal government and by some state governments as they seek to adopt effective reforms for their own schools, but it has not been looked to as a model of improvement within New York City.
The purpose of this report is to describe the organization and accomplishments of schools of choice in Community School District 4. The report is motivated by a desire to bring the evidence of educational reform in East Harlem to the forefront of the debate about the future of New York City's school system, and to describe a true alternative to bureaucracy as the means of delivering educational services to the city.