Failing Schools and Local Districts Undermining Families’ NCLB Options

Published June 1, 2008

One of the major promises of the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) has been that kids in chronically bad schools will be able to reach beyond those institutions for help. According to a U.S. Department of Education report released in April, however, few kids have been using those options, and it’s not due only to disinterest.

The report–Volume IV in the department’s “State and Local Implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act” series–examines implementation of NCLB’s school choice and supplemental educational services (SES) provisions through the 2004-05 school year.

Under the law, parents with children in schools that receive federal Title I funds and fail for two consecutive years to make adequate yearly progress (AYP) on state assessments–schools deemed “in need of improvement”–are entitled to choose for their child a school in a district not deemed as needing improvement. In schools that miss AYP for another year, students must be offered free tutoring as well as choice.

Using Choice

The good news in the report is that more students used choice and supplemental services in the 2003-04 and 2004-05 school years than in NCLB’s first year. In 2002-03, only 18,000 students nationwide used the school choice option provided by the law, and 42,000 used SES. By contrast, in 2003-04, 38,000 students nationwide took advantage of school choice and 233,000 used SES. Data were unavailable on SES for 2004-05, but 45,000 students nationwide used school choice.

Despite increases in absolute usage, findings about the percentage of eligible students using the NCLB options were less positive: Only 17 percent of eligible students used SES in 2003-04, and only 1 percent of eligible students took advantage of public school choice in 2003-04 and 2004-05.

The report offers several explanations for why choice and SES utilization were not greater. One is that in many districts choice options simply aren’t available. The report notes 77 percent of districts have only one high school, 67 percent have only one middle school, and 53 percent have only one elementary school.

Undermining the Law

Another reason for low take-up is that parents don’t feel exercising their options would be worth the effort it would require.

For instance, 75 percent of eligible parents who didn’t use choice said it was because their child’s assigned school “is located in a place that’s easy to get to.” Forty-six percent of eligible parents who didn’t use tutoring said it was because the times when tutoring was available were “not good for my family.”

Most damning, however, is that districts themselves might be undermining NCLB’s options. Researchers found in the 2004-05 school year only 29 percent of districts that were required to offer school choice notified eligible parents of their options before the first day of school. In addition, district letters notifying parents of their options were often “confusing, misleading, or biased in favor of district-provided services.”

Kara Hornung, director of communications at the nonprofit Center for Education Reform in Bethesda, Maryland, said these latter findings are an indication too many district administrators are out to protect themselves instead of doing what the law requires and what is best for students.

“They’re trying to keep people in their districts, whether they like it or not,” Hornung said.

Evading Consequences

With that as a distinct possibility, in late April the U.S. Department of Education proposed several new regulations to address the problem. These would include requiring districts to notify choice-eligible families of their options at least 14 days before the beginning of the school year and providing clear information about the availability and benefits of supplemental services.

Dan Lips, an education analyst at The Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC, while encouraged by the proposed regulations, did not think they’d end district evasion.

“If enacted, the Department of Education’s new regulations would be an improvement over existing law,” Lips said. “Unfortunately, I fear many public school systems will still find a way to get around these provisions and deny parents these options–as many have successfully done since 2002.”

Neal McCluskey ([email protected]) is associate director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom.

For more information …

State and Local Implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act, Volume IV, U.S. Department of Education, April 2008: