Choice Is Yours increases students’ options, but success still elusive

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The Choice Is Yours (CIY) program, which allows low-income Minneapolis parents to choose suburban schools for their children, has existed since the 2001-02 school year.

First known as the West Metro Education Program Choice program, the seven-year CIY program includes Minneapolis and eight suburban school districts: Robbinsdale, St. Louis Park, Wayzata, Edina, Hopkins, Richfield, St. Anthony and New Brighton. Since its inception, over 2,000 students have participated.

“The goal [at the beginning of the program] was to have 2,000 students [each year] — we have 2,080 [this school year],” says Minnesota Department of Education Assistant Commissioner Morgan Brown. He adds that based on a recent survey of CIY parents, “Ninety-six percent of parents say they would recommend the program to other parents.”

“The program has grown every year,” Edina Schools spokeswoman Gwen Jackson points out. Edina has had over 200 CIY students; this year there are 189 students. “The Choice Is Yours students go to almost all of the [nine Edina] schools,” she adds.

“Every one of our schools has [CIY] students,” says Robbinsdale Superintendent Stan Mack, whose district has 11 elementary schools, three middle schools, two high schools, and an alternative school.

History

The CIY program is a result of a 2000 settlement of an educational adequacy lawsuit against the State of Minnesota by the Minneapolis NAACP and Minneapolis parents filed in 1994. Over two decades earlier, a federal court in 1971 ruled in Booker v. Minneapolis that city schools were not following the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. The Board of Education that outlawed segregated schools.

A desegregation plan was supervised by the late Federal Judge Earl Larson for 10 years because state educational officials felt that Minneapolis school district officials were too slow in meeting the suit’s demands.

During the 1980s, however, city schools again were becoming segregated. The NAACP again threatened legal action, and for three years, the organization and state officials tried to negotiate a desegregation plan. Eventually, the state legislature called for a “Round Table Discussion Group” and hired a professional mediator to moderate the talks. This group released a final report but it was never implemented, and the NAACP went back to court in 1994.

“We felt absolutely no choice but to bring everybody to court,” recalls Matthew Little, then NAACP president.

Six years later, the case was settled. A voluntary desegregation plan with a few suburban districts was created.

“We really were pushing for metro-wide desegregation,” notes Barbara Bearman, a longtime equal education advocate who has been involved in this issue since the late 1960s. “The Booker case was more of an effort from an organization called The Committee for Integrated Education, which I helped form,” continues Bearman. “Then we collaborated with the NAACP [on the lawsuit]. We also helped to find some of the plaintiffs.”

Therefore, at the turn of the new century, almost five decades after Brown, the Choice Is Yours program was born. “The Choice program was to make sure that children had an opportunity to be exposed to whatever resources [that] are available to all students,” says Josie Johnson, a longtime civil rights, education and community activist.

Is the CIY program working?

The CIY 2006-07 school year report released in March showed that program students made “slight but significantly lesser gains” in reading and about the same in math than non-participants in the last two years. “It is essentially a snapshot of the students participating in the program in any given year,” admits Brown.

Nonetheless, almost immediately after the CIY report came out, Minneapolis Public Schools officials pointed out that city students showed nearly twice as much growth on reading achievement tests as did the suburban choice students.

“I think we are starting to get it right,” says Minneapolis Public Schools research, evaluation and assessment executive director David Heistad, urging Minneapolis parents “to look twice” in considering his district in choosing schools.

However, Aspen Associates research director Dr. Elisabeth Palmer, who prepared the CIY report for the state education department, warns it is too soon to accurately gauge the CIY students’ academic performance.

“We looked at achievement data for three years,” she explains. “Minneapolis students who were eligible [for the CIY program] but chose not to participate did better than students who were in the Choice program the first year. The Choice students did better than the students who stayed in Minneapolis [in] the second year. This year, the third year, we are finding that basically it is evening out. Any difference we were seeing is really not a big difference.

“In my opinion as a researcher,” Palmer surmises, “we would say [the data] is inconclusive right now. I think in another year or two, we would have better data to look at.”

Where to go from here

The 2000 settlement expired on June 30, 2005. However, state funding, as well as a five-year federal school choice grant which Minnesota received in 2003, has allowed the CIY program to continue.

Now the MSR senior contributing writer, Little still supports all students having their choice of schools, especially Blacks. “Yes, as long as it does not change the basic intent of the program itself. I think we worked too long and too hard to turn back at this stage of the game.”

“I think that giving families the option for their children to [attend] Edina Public Schools or Robbinsdale is one more opportunity for them,” says Edina’s Jackson.

Parents, along with their child, should “choose the right school for the child without undue influence from a third party, like a school district,” says Mack, who has been Robbinsdale’s superintendent since the CIY program started.

“Our main goal is to increase student retention and reducing the transition in and out of the Choice program,” says Brown on the CIY program’s high turnover rate. Adds Mack: “We are constantly analyzing what services we are able to provide, and trying to discover what might be impelling their progress.”

Finally, Johnson and Little both don’t want to see a desegregation reversal. This “defeats the whole idea and principles behind the Brown decision,” Little states emphatically.

“We need to have a small conference — a conversation with adults, elders, parents and educators, and talk about what we need to do for our children,” concludes Johnson. “Then map a plan and do it.”