Administrators Stonewall NCLB in Colorado

Published October 1, 2003

Public school districts across the state of Colorado broke the law last year, failing to properly notify parents of essential information about a new federal law. Thousands more parents received letters from administrators trying to discourage parents from exercising their rights under the new law.

Low student achievement in 151 Colorado public schools placed the schools on School Improvement or Corrective Action status in 2002. School administrators are required by the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act to notify parents about what this status means and about the new parental right to transfer their children to a higher-performing school with transportation provided for by the district.

The law also requires the notification to include:

  • the reason for the school’s placement on the School Improvement or Corrective Action list;
  • how the school compares academically to other schools;
  • what the school, the district, and the state are doing to address the low achievement; and
  • how parents can become involved in addressing academic issues at the school.

Informing Parents

The Education Policy Center at the Independence Institute, a think tank in Golden, Colorado, examined the forms of notification provided to parents to discover if in fact school administrators had fulfilled the requirements of the law and if they had lived up to the spirit of the law.

The Center asked the 151 schools identified for School Improvement or Corrective Action to provide a copy of the letter or other format used to communicate with parents about their choice options in the first year of the mandate. The request was accompanied by a survey to gather additional information. The survey and a summary of responses are reprinted in the June 2003 Independence Institute Issue Paper, “No Child Left Behind Mandates School Choice: Colorado’s First Year.”

The samples of notification collected for the purpose of the study, as well as the responses to the surveys, were revealing.

With an 82 percent response rate from 151 schools, only 10 schools, all located within the same school district, came close to including all the required elements in the notification. As a result, only 170 students in the state were tracked as transfers under NCLB.

Thousands of letters or notices in cluttered school bulletins were provided to parents without a clear explanation that the opportunity to transfer to a higher-performing school, with transportation paid for by the school district, is a new option under federal law.

Moreover, several school districts did not follow the spirit of the law when they attempted to sway parents away from transferring their children with statements such as, “Please be aware that if you choose this option your child becomes a student at the receiving district as that district will receive the entire state funding amount.”

Another letter sent home to parents stated, “While we don’t want this to happen, it is also our responsibility to remind you about Parent Choice. … It is our hope that you will choose to support us in our improvement efforts.”

School principals did notify parents that the school had been identified for School Improvement or Corrective Action status and often explained the school’s efforts to improve. However, the vast majority of school principals skipped the requirement to notify parents about how they can become involved in the school to address the problem of low achievement.

NCLB is precise about what form of notification is required to be sent to parents, and there is no excuse for confusing, misleading, or intimidating notification. The Colorado experience points to the importance of holding school districts accountable not only for fulfilling the requirements of the law, but also for living up to the spirit of the law. The performance of the school districts also highlights the need for parents to become informed education consumers.

While this project focused on schools in Colorado, the design of the survey readily lends itself to use in other states. The Education Policy Center welcomes the opportunity to work with organizations in other states to hold their school districts accountable for compliance with NCLB.

Pamela Benigno is the author of “No Child Left Behind Mandates School Choice: Colorado’s First Year.” She is director of the Education Policy Center at the Independence Institute. Her email address is [email protected].

For more information …

The June 2003 Independence Institute Issue Paper by Pam Benigno, “No Child Left Behind Mandates School Choice: Colorado’s First Year,” is available online at