U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings weighed in May 1 on a federal lawsuit against two Los Angeles school districts filed in March by the Alliance for School Choice and the L.A.-based Coalition for Urban Renewal and Education (CURE).
The lawsuit alleges the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) and Compton Unified School District (CUSD) fail to adequately inform parents of children zoned to attend failing schools about their transfer options under the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). The school districts had until late May to file a response to the allegations, which was pending at press time.
In a May 1 letter to California State Board of Education President Glee Johnson and Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell, Spellings said, “it is usually best to allow matters such as these to be resolved at the local and state level,” but she added the federal government is “mindful of our own compliance responsibilities and remedies.” If the districts fail to comply with the law, Spellings could cut off their federal funding.
According to a 2004 report from the Citizen’s Commission on Civil Rights–a Washington, DC-based watchdog group–only 1 percent of the more than three million children trapped in failing schools nationwide have taken advantage of their government-mandated option to attend a better school. According to the Los Angeles lawsuit, only 527 of the 250,000 students eligible for transfers–0.2 percent–have done so. And in CUSD, none have, because the districts have not told parents about their options.
“Compton has not transferred one student since NCLB became law five years ago. Not one,” said John Mancino, CURE’s director of external affairs. “I did get a copy [of school choice policies] from Compton that included a letter that supposedly went out to parents notifying them of the school choice options and NCLB, but it makes very little mention of it and goes on to play up the after-school option and tutoring, which is what LAUSD had done.
“When we requested information from Compton before [receiving that policy], the previous letter made absolutely no mention of school choice at all. Not one word, so it’s extremely frustrating. Protecting power is more important [to them] than protecting students,” Mancino said.
LAUSD is the district with the largest number of students in failing schools who are eligible to transfer under NCLB–not just in California, but nationwide. The situation is so dire that at press time, Los Angeles Mayor Anthony Villaraigosa (D) was taking steps to bypass voters and the local board of education in order to assume direct control of the schools.
If the lawsuit is resolved in the complainants’ favor, Alliance for School Choice President and general counsel Clint Bolick said, it could result in broader options for parents in Los Angeles. And because the case is filed on federal grounds, citing provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act, it could have ripple effects nationwide.
“I think that the law puts school districts between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, they are obligated to provide public school options in their districts–but in most districts, there are no better-performing public schools,” Bolick said. “So something has to give. We predict what will give is the limiting of such options to public schools within the districts. We will see inter-district transfer options, the lifting of obstacles to public charter schools, the expansion of options to include private schools, or some combination of those.”
The situation has not gone unnoticed at the federal level. The day before they filed the lawsuit, the Alliance for School Choice and CURE wrote directly to Spellings, asking her to take independent action against the districts for noncompliance with the law. In early April, Spellings announced in a speech that she had directed Henry Johnson, head of the federal Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, to investigate.
Bolick said he was unsure how long the suit might take to resolve, calling it “a really murky process.” But it did not appear to be moving fast enough to help Rhonda Mumphrey find a good school for her son by this autumn.
Mumphrey, an insurance agent, has been looking for a better school than the one in her gang-violence-ridden neighborhood since her son was 3. He’s 6 now, but Mumphrey hasn’t found another public school she likes, her child hasn’t been accepted at the private schools she’s applied to, and they didn’t win the lottery system by which students are selected to attend local charter schools.
“It’s not for lack of trying–it just seems like nobody cares,” Mumphrey said. “If you call the public schools outside of your area, you’re told your child can’t go there because you live outside their area. The bottom line is my child doesn’t have a school, and it’s May and I’d feel better if he had a better option. I don’t feel that just because I live in this neighborhood that he has to go to this school. It just seems like the voucher system would be the way to go.”
Neither the LAUSD nor the CUSD returned calls seeking comment.
Karla Dial ([email protected]) is managing editor of School Reform News.