Guest Post: The Candidates and Controlled Choice, by Osamudia James

[One of the issues that has come up in the Coral Gables Commission candidates’ debates is “controlled choice”. Since I don’t know much about it, I asked an expert, my colleague (and Coral Gables resident) Osamudia James, to write an explanation for this blog. She was kind enough to agree. -MF]

Thank you to Michael Froomkin for asking me to guest blog here about the controlled choice issue which has come up at the Coral Gables Forum candidates’ debates.

Controlled choice school assignment initiatives attempt to guide or “control” student school assignments in a region while also giving parents some choice in the matter by asking them to rank their school assignment preferences. Controlled choice programs are said to maximize parental investment in the public school system—even when parents do not receive their first choice, the active selection of their second or third ranked school will encourage them to attend those schools if they are assigned them. Controlled choice programs are often used in school districts where residential segregation results in school segregation that a school district is eager to address, with the most famous controlled choice program probably being the two that were challenged before the Supreme Court in 2007. 1

Not surprisingly, then, controlled choice in Coral Gables has its origins in the 1970s, when Miami-Dade was under court orders to integrate its public schools. In the late 1990s, the Miami-Dade County Public School (MDCPS) system adopted a controlled choice model under which a majority of Coral Gables parents do not have a home school dictated by where they live. Instead, parents have to rank their preferences among Coral Gables Preparatory Academy, Carver Elementary, and Sunset Elementary, and then enter a lottery that will determine their assignment.

Court supervision of desegregation and integration of Miami-Dade ended in 2001 when a federal judge concluded that the district had eradicated symptoms of the once-segregated system. Unfortunately, residential areas in Miami-Dade, including Coral Gables and neighboring Coconut Grove and South Miami, are still heavily segregated. This led to a resegregation trend in Miami-Dade public schools, just as activists predicted when opposing the release of court supervision in 2001. In fact, just last year, the Miami Herald found that tens of thousands of black and Hispanic students attend class in schools that would have been characterized as segregated during the thirty years federal courts monitored Miami-Dade’s integration efforts.

In Coral Gables, demographics at the three schools reflect some racial isolation, particularly for white and black students: at Carver Elementary, 21% of students are black, and only 11% are white. In contrast, only 3% of students at Sunset Elementary are black, while 36% of the students are white. Most egregiously, 14% of students at Gables Preparatory are white, while the percentage of black students at the school is zero. As in, none.

It is against this background that the debate regarding controlled choice in Coral Gables must be considered. It is unclear what role controlled choice was playing in ensuring any kind of racial diversity in the three schools. Although the district has not been willing to share its analytical data, it is at least plausible that the lottery enabled the enrollment of students in schools other than their nearest school, and that that enrollment may have resulted in increased diversity. Carver, for example, does not benefit from the same reputation that Gables Prep and Sunset enjoy, due, in part, to the school’s fluctuating letter grade, its location on the other side of US-1, and its racial composition. 2 Many parents, however, reluctantly attend Carver through the lottery, only to end up loving the school and their child’s educational experience there. 3 Similarly, it is plausible that black students who would be assigned to Carver under a neighborhood assignment plan would have an opportunity, through the controlled choice lottery, to instead attend highly sought-after Sunset or Coral Gables Prep. Although no black students currently attend Gables Prep, it is unclear whether that is because no black students in the lottery selected the school, whether no black students were randomly assigned Gables Prep in the lottery, or whether any assigned black students subsequently transferred out of the school.

Undaunted, however, by the lack of concrete data about how a release from controlled choice might impact diversity, the Coral Gables City Commission formally requested that MDCPS release Coral Gables–the last region in Miami-Dade County where controlled choice remained in effect–from controlled choice. Under the elimination of controlled choice, new attendance boundaries would be drawn allowing students to attend one of the three school based primarily on proximity. In an attempt, however, to respond to parent concerns about the impact of the release on current assignments, the Commission also requested that currently enrolled students be “grandfathered-in” so that they remain in their currently assigned schools through graduation. In an attempt to be responsive to issues of diversity, the Commission also reaffirmed a commitment to Carver Elementary, suggesting that the school become a mini magnet for foreign language to both provide an alternative to the highly sought-after language magnet at Sunset Elementary, and ensure a neighborhood feeder for Carver Middle, Florida’s top-rated middle school.

On February 26th, Coral Gables’s request was reviewed by the MDCPS Attendance Boundary Committee, which voted in favor of ending controlled choice in Coral Gables, but also concluded it was without jurisdiction to approve a magnet at Carver. On March 5th, the City’s request was then reviewed by the school district’s Diversity, Equity and Excellence Advisory Committee, which voted against Gables’s request for reasons that are not yet clear. The ultimate decision on releasing Coral Gables from controlled choice will be made in June by the full school board.

So, what does this mean for the candidates? Well, that all depends on the aspects of the controlled choice controversy on which you choose to focus.

Controversy regarding controlled choice is a perennial issue—parents often complain about the administrative hassle of entering the lottery, of not knowing until well into the summer which school they will be assigned, and about the burden of potentially having to pass a neighborhood school to attend another school across town. Candidates, therefore, might be assessed on how quickly they chose to respond to the issue this year, and on whether they did so in the appropriate matter. Although many parents are delighted that the City Commission, including incumbents Jim Cason (Mayor), and Frank Quesada (Commissioner, Group IV), decided to formally oppose controlled choice, many parents believe the process was rushed and parental notification inadequate. It was clear from some of the meetings held on the matter that the Commission was caught off guard not only by the virulence with which some parents opposed a release from control choice, but also by the (negative) racialized nature of commentary opposing a change that would force parents to attend less-white Carver. Accordingly, as a voter, I have questions about whether the incumbents properly gauged community sentiment about controlled choice (as opposed to responding to a small but vocal group of parents), and about whether they understood the larger racial context in which debates about controlled choice must necessarily take place. When assessing challengers on this metric, I might think about what their track record for more deliberative democracy is, and ask about whether they would have handled the controlled choice issue any differently.

There is also the larger issue of diversity in our schools. Although formal segregation has long been dismantled, it is no secret that enduring residential segregation in Miami leads to enduring school segregation, a reality reflected in the racial makeup of schools in the controlled choice boundary for Coral Gables. The very factor, however, that prompts school segregation is the same obstacle to its remedy—absent significant busing, the current demographic make-up of the Gables makes it difficult to ensure our neighborhood schools are appreciably integrated. MDCPS insists, for example, that the elimination of controlled choice will have no significant impact on the racial demographics of any of the three implicated schools. Such a prediction does not seem to take into account the potential increase in white flight on account of forced assignment to Carver. But even assuming the District is correct, what should Coral Gables do about diversity and inclusion in its public schools? What obligation does the Commission have to consider diversity and inclusion when making decisions that impact the school and larger community? What obligation does the Commission have to broach and discuss with its residents issues of race and class in the “city beautiful”? Ultimately, the answers to these questions will matter most to me when making my assessments; candidates who can show they understand how inequality, racial or otherwise, operates in the Gables, and who are prepared to discuss that reality with courage and clarity are the candidates who are sure to get my vote.

Osamudia James is a Professor of Law at the University of Miami School of Law, where she writes and teaches in the areas of Torts, Administrative Law, Education Law, Law and Inequality, and Identity. You can follow her on twitter @OsamudiaJ.

  1. The controlled choice programs in Seattle, Washington and Louisville, Kentucky were struck down by the Supreme Court because both school districts explicitly considered student race as one factor when making school assignments. The Court did sanction, however, race-conscious controlled choice programs that consider racial composition of schools when making assignments without explicit consideration of individual student race. Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, 551 U.S. 701 (2007).[]
  2. Although parents often assert that they care about academics, research suggests that even after controlling for educational programming and performance, parents use race as a primary heuristic when making schooling choices. Susan L. DeJarnatt, School Choice and the (Ir)rational Parent (2008).[]
  3. See, e.g. Christina Vega & Monique Madan, School Boundary Debate Divides Coral Gables, The Miami Herald, 2/25/15 (describing the experience of Christine Austin, a parent of a fourth-grader enrolled in an Italian immersion and gifted program at Carver Elementary, who “cried for three weeks” when she was first assigned to the school, but who now enjoys highly personalized teaching support for her child, and notes that her “perceptions changed” and that she is “happy”). []
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