Innovations in Education: Creating Strong District School Choice Programs
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Miami-Dade County Public Schools

District Demographics
Enrollment 370,000
Enrollment Trend Down
Number of Schools 340
Population Type Greater metropolitan area
Subsidized Meals 62%
English Learners 17%
Special Needs 11%

Miami is often referred to as the capital of Latin America, and its huge school district has long welcomed immigrants from the Caribbean and points south. Of the district's 370,000 students, 58 percent have a Hispanic heritage. Students of Haitian background, whose home language is typically Creole, are a significant language minority. African American students make up 30 percent of the school population, and white students have dwindled to 10 percent.

It was a 1971 school desegregation order that first led Miami-Dade County Public Schools to institute school choice--in the form of magnet schools designed to compensate for the district's highly segregated housing patterns. Today, Miami-Dade offers a wide array of school choice options, designed to increase student diversity, diminish concentrations of low-income students, and improve student achievement.

Among the district's school choice options are 71 magnet programs, 31 charter schools, 16 controlled choice schools, two satellite schools hosted by large employers on their sites, and a "commuter" school for the convenience of parents who work in downtown Miami and drop their children off nearby. A new program, funded by a Voluntary Public School Choice program grant is the "I choose!" initiative. Plans are to create as many as eight "choice zones" in which schools will be modeled on successful magnet and charter schools--designed to reverse declining enrollment in designated areas. Currently, nine "I Choose!" schools are in the process of improving the appeal of their facilities, designing new school programs, and participating in professional development aligned with their program goals. Another option for parents comes from the state of Florida's "Opportunity Scholarships Program," which overlaps with NCLB accountability measures. The program allows children to transfer out of schools designated as failing, and it provides a voucher of about $4,000, which can be used at a private school. Florida also offers scholarships to its disabled students through the McKay program and tax credits for donations to private school choice programs. Currently 13,000 students in Florida participate in the tax-credit program.

Not surprisingly, the complexity of the district's school choice program calls for an administrative division for school choice. In addition, Miami-Dade has created a cross-district "schools of choice" advisory committee to promote greater understanding of the district's goals for magnets, analyze special program needs, make recommendations for program expansion, and encourage community engagement with the district's choice program. It is the role of the advisory committee, for example, to make recommendations for increasing the participation of Hispanic students in the district magnet schools.

Until 2001, the district was still under court order to address racial segregation in its schools. An extensive transportation program was part of the remedy. The district's new, voluntary desegregation plan has redefined diversity to better reflect Miami's changing demographics. Students' transportation options have also been redefined. Budget constraints have caused the district to reorganize into tighter transportation zones and to call on parents to take more responsibility for transporting children.

The Miami-Dade area also has a rapidly increasing number of independent charter schools. Currently the district's 31 charters enroll about 12,000 students. By 2006, 103 charter schools will enroll 56,000 students. These schools average 300 to 500 students, in comparison with the district average of 1,100. Until recently, a state cap on the number of schools within a district made it possible for Miami-Dade to negotiate with charter applicants, so that new schools would be located in areas where district schools were most crowded. Now, without a cap, charter applicants are competing more directly with the district.

Charter schools are attractive to parents, and the district is intent on reproducing the qualities that make charters so popular. In an informal survey of charter school parents, the district learned that parents left traditional schools in part because of the feeling of comfort and security offered by charter schools. the schools themselves were smaller, classes were smaller, the learning environment felt safe, and the schools selected were convenient.

As Miami-Dade continues to roll out its "I Choose!" program and to develop its other school choice options, it will be paying close attention to better serving constituents. District administrators believe that the Florida decision to encourage competition between charter schools and traditional schools is having its intended effect: to improve both types of schools. Parents, they say, are driving the interest in choice and accelerating the district's responsiveness to the needs of its students.

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Last Modified: 11/30/2009