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Making sense of school choice

Page 2 of 2 -- Done right, choice programs can improve schools, educators and others say. Framingham's lottery, for instance, includes firm enrollment caps, ensuring small classes throughout the system.

But choice is no nirvana. Options vary from district to district, and quality often depends on income and ZIP code.

''What's confusing is the suggestion that there is lots and lots of choice," said Stephen J. Adams, president of the Boston-based Pioneer Institute, a nonpartisan, public-policy think tank. ''It's not like going to a good grocery store. We've led parents to believe they have choices when really they don't."

Metco, the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity, allows urban students to transfer to suburban schools, but only serves disadvantaged minority children in Boston and Springfield. Long wait lists for charter schools suggests unmet demand, yet almost half of the state's school districts cannot add new charter schools because of statutory limits on funding and enrollment. Charter school proponents are trying to persuade lawmakers to lift the caps.

The state law opens all schools to intradistrict transfers, but many systems don't participate; Belmont closed its doors two years ago after welcoming 30 out-of-district students. The recent closing of some Catholic schools further narrows options, while soaring home prices put moving to a higher-performing suburban district out of reach for many families.

Even if they have numerous choices where they live, parents face a challenge. They have to figure out how to cut through the hype and how to find out what choices they actually have. Though the state calls for every school system to maintain a parent-information center, some districts reach out more than others.

The vast majority of Massachusetts parents, according to a November study, have no clue that their child's school is underperforming and, thus, do not know that their child is entitled to extra services or the right to transfer to another school under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. In 2003, just 298 of the 95,458 eligible Massachusetts students seized the opportunity to transfer to a higher-performing public school, according to the study by the Pioneer Institute.

Christopher Lubienski, an assistant professor of educational organization and leadership at the University of Illinois-Urbana, has come across ''a lot of odd stuff," in studying how schools market themselves in the choice era. Some schools tried providing place mats with student art in the local McDonald's. High-achieving schools might tout test scores while strugglers emphasize dress codes.

In Framingham, where 35 percent of the students attend schools outside of their neighborhoods, and a charter middle school opened in 2002, ''we really honed our message," said Martes.

Parents can learn about each Framingham school's ''theme" at morning coffees and evening showcases, and each family gets at least 20 minutes with a parent-information counselor who reviews the application and answers questions while squelching groundless fears. ''I used to laugh and suggest that we change our number to 1-800-Rumor-Control," said Anna C. Cross, director of Framingham's parent support programs.

Because ''it takes a little time for a school's reputation to catch up with reality," visiting the schools is crucial, said Kathleen Colby, a Boston public school parent who guides others through the choice maze as a counselor with Y/BPS, a new YMCA-based outreach partnership with Boston public schools.

''Never underestimate the power of your gut," Colby said. ''The best school is the school that is right for your child, not the school everyone wants or thinks is best." 

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