Obama ‘No Child’ Reforms Would Eliminate School Choice Options

Published February 14, 2011

President Obama and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan have renewed their call for Congress to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act this year, proposing, among other changes, that the 2001 law be stripped of public school choice provisions.

Obama touted his administration’s reforms during his State of the Union address in January. “Race to the Top should be the approach we follow this year as we replace No Child Left Behind with a law that’s more flexible and focused on what’s best for our kids.”

Obama originally introduced his blueprint to reform No Child Left Behind (NCLB) last March. Administration officials say the plan would create flexibility for schools by eliminating some key mandates, including school choice.

“Our proposal in fact eliminates federal mandates to provide supplemental education services and public school choice,” Duncan said at a press conference for rural reporters.

Instead of mandates to offer supplemental education services (SES) or school choice, schools and school districts will be awarded grants for high achievement, achievement growth, and creating charter schools, autonomous schools, magnet schools, and public school choice.

‘Very Limited Choice’

Currently, federal law requires schools rated as failing to make adequately yearly progress (AYP) two years in a row to offer SES, such as tutoring or other after school programs. The programs may be run by the district or by private, nonprofit organizations.

Additionally, NCLB requires these schools to offer students the chance to transfer to higher-performing schools.

“Public school choice might make sense in an urban community,” Duncan told the rural reporters, “but if there isn’t a school for 30 or 40 miles, it doesn’t quite make as much sense.”

“It is a very modest, very limited school choice,” said Lindsey Burke, an education analyst with the Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC. Burke says the mandate has value because “it serves as a lifeline for students in failing schools.”

‘Symbolic Defeat’ Only
Jay P. Greene, chairman of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, says removing the public school choice and SES mandate “isn’t a big deal.”

Greene says terminating the mandates would be a “symbolic defeat” of school choice but he argues it “wasn’t meaningful choice and competition” in the first place.

“It hasn’t offered students very much” Greene said.

Greene points to a report he wrote with Jonathan Butcher, Lauren Jensen, and Catherine Shock for the Georgetown Journal of Law and Public Policy called “You Can’t Choose if You Don’t Know.”

The report’s authors contacted 2,488 “choice-eligible schools” across the country, with ambiguous emails to give the impression parents were seeking information regarding their right to choose another public school as required by NCLB. The vast majority of schools (85 percent) never responded to the inquiries.

In all, the authors found just 5.7 percent of the schools provided correct and accurate information regarding a parent’s right to choose a school under NCLB law.

Meaningful Choice ‘Unlikely’

Should Obama successfully overturn the school choice mandates, Burke says, the question remains whether competitive grants will encourage districts to create meaningful public school choice.

“That seems unlikely,” says Burke, who believes the reform grants will be dwarfed by further subsidies to “fund the status quo.”

Patrick Gibbons ([email protected]) is an independent education policy analyst in Las Vegas.