The Anatomy of School Choice
The average cost of a high school in Florida is
$40 million. But finding the funding for such a project is only
the beginning. Creating a new attendance zone and assigning the
student population is both a lengthy and very public process, prone
to heated debate and hurt feelings. The School Board of Manatee
County, Florida learned how technology of Geographic Information
Systems (GIS) could be applied in a scientific manner to produce
a politically and socially acceptable solution to a series of interrelated
In 1996, the Florida Legislature passed a law
requiring each of the 67 county school districts in the state to
develop a school choice proposal. In a perfect world, the concept
of school choice is quite simple. Let parents and students choose
the school to attend when they prefer a school other than what school
district officials have assigned. In reality, issues such as transportation,
classroom overcrowding, racial balancing and equality of resources
from one campus to another affect the free flow of student choice.
The Manatee County
School Board submitted their plan in June 1997. The next month a
panel of 35 school administrators, teachers, parents, national school
choice experts, delegates from the National Advancement of Colored
People, Parent Teacher Association and governor's office met at
the state capitol in Tallahassee. They reviewed the proposals. Each
school choice plan was assigned a grade.
A maximum score of 45 points was
possible. The Manatee plan was one of ten to receive a score of
In September, the administration at Manatee returned
with a new plan adressing the legislative requirements and providing
a concrete timetable for implementation. School Superintendent Gene
Denisar said, "We realized we would have to move more than
2,500 students to rezone the district with our new high school,
Lakewood Ranch, set to open in the fall. Rather than having the
school administration force students to relocate to a new school,
a good school choice plan could allow students and parents the ability
to make the decisions themselves."
GIS Articulates Solution
At this point, GIS technology became the
medium for articulating the solution. GeoChoice represents the culmination
of a 3 year evolution in the mutual understanding of the Manatee
staff about GIS and the staff of International Computer Works, Inc.(ICW)
about redistricting problems.
In July of 1995 (ICW) Temple Terrace, FL, started
working with the Manatee staff. The initial process included the
delivery of MapInfo Corporation (Troy, NY), training services, data
creation and analysis. Geocoding 26,000 students using the 1995
TIGER/Line files required almost two weeks to complete.
Census blocks were created from streets wherever
possible. When the students were geocoded, an object was added to
the map about 30 feet off the street centerline. This allowed ICW
to tabulate the student at the block level, such as hspopwhite,
hspopblack and hspophispanic, using the students that fell into
each respective block. The tabulation was performed at all three
levels of attendance.
The census blocks were then used in conjunction
with the MapInfo Redistrict function to aggregate and disaggregate
blocks, creating balanced attendance zones for high schools, middle
schools and elementary schools. "This was a remarkable planning
tool", says Mike McCann, then-coordinator of student accounting.
"We were using computers and electronic maps to solve very
controversial redistricting problems with data at our fingertips."
In September of 1995, ICW was awarded a contract
from the Secretary of State of Wyoming to provide their county clerks
with a suite of software, TIGERUS with which to make topologically
correct edits to the US Census TIGER/Line Files. This software would
subsequently enable Manatee to take their project to the next level.
Recognizing the need to reduce the time to geocode
updated enrollment data from the School Board Registrar, The Manatee
Student Accounting Department initiated a TIGERUS project. Using
TIGERUS, Terry Secret, the District Demographer, was able to conflate
the TIGER/Line Files to an address-attributed street line map provided
by Dale Friendly of the Manatee County Property Appraiser's Office.
With the enhanced base map, geocoding was reduced to two days, while
enrollment swelled to 32,000 students.
As Secret completed the conflation process, ICW
developed GeoSchools, a module that works with MapInfo and TIGERUS
to automate the tabulation process. Among the functionality offered
by GeoSchools, the Block Split function allows planners the flexibility
to modify census geography where a block does not follow a school
GeoSchools also builds a dictionary
that can be used on the school mainframe as a lookup table
to validate student residential addresses as they are entered
by the registrar at each campus. With the new street network,
a block table that matched, updated student files easily geocoded,
and GeoSchools to automate otherwise tedious and repetitive
functions numerous redistricting plans could be prepared for
public debate. During the year, school attendance zones were
redistricted and new plans were approved through a series
of public meetings and several news articles.
After successfully completing the
high school redistricting, which defined the five attendance zones
for the fall of 1998, ICW worked with McCann to design an automated
methodology for conducting controlled choice. This work was aimed
at creating a plan that would replace a choice plan earlier rejected
by Department of Education(DOE). The program had to work with capacity
constraints, minority ratios, and maintain the neighborhood school
concept where possible. The collaborators believed that given the
number of variables and students involved, an iterative process
using GIS technology, taking into account spatial and temporal issues
could work. They could build this upon the foundation the redistricting
work represented. GeoChoice was conceived during these planning
sessions. McCann could then propose a school choice plan with the
knowledge that not only would it succeed, it was a natural evolution
of the prior work.
In the fall of 1997, Mike McCann was joined by Dan Lundeen, Supervisor
of Student Accounting for Manatee Schools. They met with members
of the DOE to present their new concept of School Choice. The results
of that meeting were announced on the front page of the Manatee/AM
Edition of the Sarasota Herald Tribune on October 31, 1997: "New
Choice Plan Ranks Among Best." The paper reported that the
Manatee County School District school choice program, which "state
education officials originally deemed one of the worst school choice
programs in the state was worthy of serving as a model."
"I'm really fired up, really excited,"
said superintendent Gene Denisar, "I think it's great ... I'm
pleased with DOE for looking at our plan and giving us a chance.
It is a tribute for all of the people who have worked not only on
the choice programs, but also on high school rezoning and all of
the variables and aspects of it."
On the same day, the headlines of the Bradenton
Herald newspaper read, "State, Feds To Award Manatee $18,000
for School Choice Plan." The article went on to say: The Manatee
County plan caught the eye of the state and federal officials because
it would be the only school choice plan in the state that starts
on the high school level. If all goes well in Manatee County, state
officials are likely to use the district as an example of how to
start school choice on the high school level.
Now that they had their funding, the real work
were created from streets wherever possible. When the students
were geocoded, an object was added to the map about 30 feet
off the street centerline for tabulating the student at the
block level. Blocks were then aggregated and disaggregated,
creating balanced attendance zones for high schools, middle
schools and elementary schools. Working with McCann and Lundeen,
ICW developed GeoChoice. GeoChoice works with redistricted
school boundaries between years, two mile walk zones, and
student files. Students completing Choice applications are
scored based upon their grade and geographic proximity to
a two mile walk zone. Additional points are assigned if the
student falls into the area of transition of zones between
years. Working with minimum and maximum minority population
levels and capacity constraints, GeoChoice uses a random selection
process working on the highest scoring candidates to the lowest
Of the approximately 8,795 high
school students projected to be in attendance for the 1998-99 school
year, it was estimated that 1,500 would be affected by redistricting.
In late December 1997, all parents of high schoolers
in the county received notices informing them what school their
child has been assigned to for fall 1998. In the end, only 953 elected
to chose a school other than their primary assignment. The Choice
application for each of the students who returned an application
was entered into GeoChoice through the Add Record function.
Once the database was complete, the operator was
able to use the Apply Score function, giving each student a score
based upon the values defined by the administrator with the Parameters
function of GeoChoice.
Of the 953 students who submitted applications,
825 were assigned to their first-choice school, meaning that 98.55%
of the students in all of the Manatee High School system received
their first choice.
The 128 students who did not receive their first
choice could decide to stay in their assigned school or try their
chances in a second lottery in March.
The Workflow of School Choice
STEP 1: TIGERUS
it all begins with the map. TIGERUS consists
of the MapEdit ToolKit and TMT. The MapEdit ToolKit facilitates
making topologically correct edits to a mapped database of TIGER/Line
files. These edits include aligning the TIGERs to a local base map,
correcting street names, address ranges, ZIP Codes, and adding missing
streets or even entire subdivisions. Once the TIGER maps have been
updated, MapEdit regenerates the TIGER/Line files spatially enhanced
and attribute enriched.
STEP 2: GEOCODING
Using TMT, 17 to 24 map layers are created
from the updated TIGERs. A road map is one of the layers. The road
map is used to geocode students to specific locations. With Campuses
added to the map, walk zones can be created in accordance with local
STEP 3: GEOSCHOOLS
Another map layer created by TMT consists
of census blocks. GeoSchools tabulates the student demographics
at the block level. This map of blocks illustrates the number of
students that reside in each block. The data comes from the preceding
pin map. The blocks can be used to define attendance districts that
meet the socioeconomic and capacity goals of the community
STEP 4: GEOCHOICE
GeoChoice will conduct a lottery, allocating
students based upon attendance preferences while factoring in capacity
and demographic constraints. GeoChoice will facilitate zoned or
open choice plans. Students can be assigned scores based upon variables
such as grade level or location. Table driven, GeoChoice can be
easily adapted to meet varying community needs.