Column: The freedom to choose what’s best for kids: What the Unit 4 consent decree tells us about school choice

By John Bambanek

Champaign Unit 4 schools have been operating under federal court supervision since the latest consent decree in 2002. This consent decree came about after complaints to the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights about racial disparities in several areas such as staffing, discipline, achievement, tracking and assignments. At noon today, the federal court will be having a status hearing on the progress of the district.

For years there has been tension between the school district and the black community. This tension came to a head this spring when the school district decided to propose a school in the far north of Champaign (generally considered affluent) and the decision to put police officers in the schools. Imani Bezzell of the Urban League believes that minority children acting out are those who need help and the solution is not to arrest them. She mentioned many after school programs run by the Urban League and others to help solve that problem.

Dorland Norris, Deputy Superintendent of Champaign Unit 4, says that the district is “committed to ensuring we meet the goals of the consent decree.” Progress has indeed been made but points of contention still remain, particularly the stalemate on future school buildings that will be a topic of intense negotiation after the upcoming hearing.

Bezzell agrees that progress has been made but the administration before Arthur Culver, the current superintendent, was slow to put into action some of the consent decree goals. The status hearing will evaluate whether the district can, in fact, meet the goals in time for the consent decree to end as scheduled in 2009. Both Bezzell and Norris are clear that they believe the research-based policies being enacted should not only decrease the achievement gap, but help all students succeed.

These conflicts have lead to a marked decrease in the amount of white students that attend Champaign Unit 4 schools in favor of private schools. In April of this year, several black parents urged a boycott of Champaign Unit 4 schools. Just recently a charter school proposal has begun to develop specifically for black boys up to grade 4. The question of choice once again figures highly in the issue.

Champaign schools have a controlled school choice program where parents can express preference for up to three schools they would like to send their children to. The idea is that the different schools would offer different educational philosophies and environments for parents to choose from. This, ideally, would help the district to isolate which schools have policies that work and which don’t. This concept has been lost under the deluge of the consent decree, according to Bezzell.

According to Norris, “Charter schools have not been successful in closing the achievement gap.” However, the research shows something different. Dr. Carolina Hoxby, professor at Harvard University, found that the achievement gap at charter schools is lower than it is when there are only public school options. Where charter schools were well established (such as in California), the achievement gap decreased even further.

Champaign Unit 4 schools are trying to implement a similar choice dynamic while still maintaining district control. This shows that even the brightest minds at Unit 4 understand that school competition helps determine what schools are doing things right and what schools need improvement. However, the Unit 4 problems cut across all the schools.

A ten year plan to improve a school may be an important thing, but the benefits will be not be reaped by students actually in the system now.

School choice allows competition so parents, who are in the best position to know their children’s best interests, can decide what values and what environment is best for their children. If parents decide Champaign Unit 4 schools aren’t in their children’s best interests, why should the public money set aside for the purpose of educating those same children not follow the student? If a charter school works, it should not be disregarded.

When schools compete, kids win.