Seattle's contradictory school-assignment proposal

'Choice' competes with 'predictability' in a proposed new plan for assigning students to buildings. And a former School Board member and journalist thinks choice, the status quo, will probably win.
'Choice' competes with 'predictability' in a proposed new plan for assigning students to buildings. And a former School Board member and journalist thinks choice, the status quo, will probably win.

Tomorrow, June 20, the Seattle School Board will likely adopt a strategy to change the way the district assigns 46,000 students to elementary, middle, and high schools. Seattle's present system, adopted 10 years ago, allows for a great deal of choice by parents and students, but it's complicated and expensive – it involves navigating a bureaucracy, and kids are bused all over town. An overhaul in time for the 2008-09 school year is planned. There are four things the board wants to accomplish:

  1. Save money by cutting back on busing.
  2. Maintain school choice so as not to drive away the mainly middle-class families that use the system to get their kids into the better schools.
  3. Increase the predictability of school assignments to increase middle-class enrollment and bring in more money.
  4. Simplify the system so it doesn't - as it does now - disadvantage primarily the poor and new immigrants who have difficulty with enrollment processes.
To varying degrees, these goals conflict with one another, and different board members prioritize them differently. Cutting across these goals is the district's fundamental problem: dramatic differences in school quality. The proposed assignment plan itself doesn't directly address school quality, but the board has appended to it about $1 million per year in new spending at southeast Seattle schools. That spending on Aki Kurose Middle School, Rainier Beach and Cleveland high schools, and the African American Academy - in some of the city's poorest neighborhoods – takes some of the sting out of the tough choices contained in the rest of the plan, and it provides political cover for the School Board. Said Brita Butler-Wall, a former board president who's decided not to seek re-election this year, after a public hearing on the plan last week: "I think the real key is the Southeast Initiative." Without it, she couldn't vote for the proposed assignment plan. The underlying problem of varying school quality makes school choice so important to the district and, when it comes to changing the assignment plan, a migraine for the School Board. Choice came about to soften the blow of desegregation and busing 30 years ago, to minimize, if not prevent, white flight to private schools and the suburbs. Choice has morphed since into a tool for savvy families of all races to steer their kids to the better schools. In short, choice has become an entitlement, allowing kids near weak schools the chance to attend a better-regarded school in a different neighborhood. It's not surprising, then, that the draft "framework" (144K PDF) for the new assignment plan makes almost no changes in the level of school choice the district will offer. Parents will still have a cluster of elementary schools to choose from, though it will be smaller, down to three or four schools from five to nine today. The plan promises that seats will be left open for choice at middle and high schools, though "logistics" will make this hard to deliver. There will be choice rules for admission to the alternative schools, such as TOPS and Salmon Bay, both highly regarded K-8 programs. Regarding choice, it's "details to come" over the next five months if the board approves the framework as scheduled. The downside of preserving school choice as the framework suggests is continuing to spend money on busing. According to board member Michael DeBell, savings would range from $3 million to $5 million annually if schedule changes, such as staggered school starting times, are employed. That's on top of $1.5 million in expected savings from switching all high school students from yellow to Metro buses, a change planned independently of any new assignment plan. To put those figures in perspective, next year's cost for busing is about $29 million. Since the preponderance of political pressure will come from families seeking to preserve school choice, the board will have to make hard, unpopular decisions when the details are voted on next fall to have a chance at meeting the savings targets. As a demonstration of the value parents place on school choice, at PTA meetings and the like where the issue comes up, middle-class families will quickly suggest and eagerly offer to pay for their children's bus rides. (It's axiomatic that low-income families would never be required to pay.) Such a system is possible but worrisome. A lot of paying customers likely would inflate the aura of entitlement around choice and busing. There's no doubt that school choice has kept the district and the majority of middle-class parents together over the years. But among the losers, the parents who didn't get the schools they wanted for their kids, there's been no such warmth for the district. In fact, over the past four or five years, a number of these parents have succeeded in changing the terms of the debate. A desire for "predictability" in school assignments has begun to challenge choice as a way to attract more middle-class families back to the district. The new framework recognizes the value of predictability and proposes a "base" assignment for each child to the family's neighborhood elementary school. From there, kids would follow a "feeder pattern" to one specific middle school. Grabbing a few buzzwords, the framework says feeder patterns "provide for K-8 articulation, collaboration and accountability; and ... support increased family involvement in schools," but the plan avoids the dreaded phrase "guaranteed assignment," which is used only for elementary schools. By middle school, predictability would be slipping away. When it comes to high schools, even feeder patterns almost disappear. The framework dissembles with these words: "Students' interests often evolve in different directions as they get older, so a different balance between predictability, continuity and choice is appropriate." In other words, back to the choice method of school assignment. District planners long ago realized that at middle and high school, they can't offer guaranteed assignments. At least the framework is honest about why: "[G]iven the size and location of middle and high schools, and the distribution of student population, continuous feeder patterns from middle to high school are not logistically possible." In that language is the message that the new assignment plan won't look much different from the current one, despite the hopes of many parents to know from the beginning, based on where they live, what elementary, middle, and high schools their children will attend. Based on district attendance data, here are a couple examples of the logistical quandaries: If all the kids for whom Ballard is the closest high school were assigned there, enrollment would explode to nearly 2,400, way beyond building capacity. If all the kids who live closest to Rainier Beach High School had to go there, enrollment would rise from only 400 to more than 1,800. The Ballard example shows why there's been such a battle over enrollment there, beginning with a lawsuit brought in 2000 by Parents Involved with Community Schools (PICS), a Magnolia parent group, over race-based assignment. The case is now before the U.S. Supreme Court. (Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District) The Ballard example also vividly demonstrates the long-term consequence of closing and selling off Queen Anne High School in 1981. Magnolia and Queen Anne kids are the ones pounding on Ballard's door; their parents are leading the charge for predicable assignments. The Rainier Beach example shows where community-based assignments could be a plus. Dramatic increases in enrollment at Rainier Beach would bring dollars to support the comprehensive, college-prep high school programs Beach now lacks. In contrast, increased enrollment is the almost certain plus side of an system in which parents truly knew from the start where their kids will go at the transition to middle and then high school. There is plenty of proof for this in the stories of parents who have left the district for private school. The loss of those families is not trivial for a 46,000-student district that has seen gradual enrollment decline for the past five years. Fully 25 percent of all school-age children living in Seattle are sent to private schools. The loss climbs to 35 percent and even 50 percent in some middle- and upper-middle-class neighborhoods. Every middle-class child enrolled in public school brings the district at least $6,200 - about $4,700 in state money and another approximately $1,600 in local property levy dollars. (Low-income children bring in more money from federal and state special programs, but the total is always less than the district spends on them, which it makes up from the local levy.) Every regular student - from the middle class - generates a surplus the district uses to increase spending on behalf of low-income children. On the board, DeBell has become the leading advocate of using increased predictability in the assignment plan to increase the district's market share among the middle class. Support for predictability "is the strongest voice we hear from comments" on the plan, DeBell says. To follow that course, though, district planners and the School Board will have to look over the horizon, because, ironically, a district that just closed seven elementary schools needs more middle and high schools. Options include re-opening Wallingford's Lincoln High School in 2012, when its present role as a temporary home for other high schools being refurbished ends, and developing more K-8 schools to take the pressure off the so-called comprehensive large middle schools. None of this can happen fast. The planners' "not logistically possible" euphemism presents another troublesome truth for the proposed assignment plan. To be meaningful, school choice requires empty or reserved seats. There aren't really many empty seats at middle or high schools, and the current plan relies on a shuffling of students (you like it here, I like it there) to work as well as it does. Reserving seats, either for nearby residents or for students who will improve the racial balance of a school, is what the debate, and the current case before the Supreme Court, is all about. Pending the court's decision, board members have been instructed by the district's lawyers not to talk about alternatives to race as an assignment factor. Nevertheless, there is interest in using low income as a preference in school choice, a position advocated by Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat and this writer. The bottom line remains academics. How do you make schools better, get more kids performing up to grade level? An assignment plan, however crafted, probably won't contribute much. It can work better, particularly for low-income families, if it's simpler, and that's one of the goals. But the Seattle School Board is left seeking other strategies to improve student performance, particularly in the district's weaker schools. Sadly, in a budget of more than $500 million, the $1 million in the assignment plan's Southeast Initiative is not much. In that light, assignment changes that would increase enrollment and district revenue should glow with a high priority. "Capturing middle class families is the key to creating money to redirect [to low-income students] under the weighted student formula," says DeBell. But the devil is in the details, and what the board might choose by November is another matter.   

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About the Authors & Contributors

Dick Lilly

Dick Lilly

Dick Lilly is a former Seattle Times reporter who covered Seattle neighborhoods, City Hall and public schools during 14-years with the paper.