Still No Choice for Poor and Minority Students

Published October 1, 2002

Millions of children were left behind as the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) reform began to take effect this fall. The law is supposed to ensure that parents can find improved opportunities for children trapped in chronically failing schools subsidized by the Title I program.

After a school has failed for two straight years to meet its state’s academic standards, local districts are supposed to offer families the choice of a better-performing public school within the home district, plus free transportation. President George W. Bush wanted that choice to extend to private schools or public schools in adjoining districts, but congressional leaders adamantly opposed the use of vouchers.

If they fail for a third year, schools are supposed to allow parents to use up to $1,000 of their Title I subsidy to purchase supplemental educational services, such as private tutors or after-school programs. (See related story, “Already Booming, Tutoring Receives Large NCLB Boost.”).

NCLB negotiators decided the accountability provisions should apply immediately, so no child would have to wait years before finding relief.

Despite policymakers’ best intentions, however, newspaper reports from all over the country indicate only small numbers of eligible children are getting a fresh start in a new school. Reasons ranged from willful efforts of school officials to frustrate choice, to the lack of space in better public schools, to understandable confusion about parental rights or district responsibilities under the new federal law.

In Ohio—home of the Cleveland voucher program, upheld as constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in the June 27 Zelman decision—many parents had not been informed by their districts of their right to public school choice under NCLB.

“Even parents who are aware of the law have, in some cases, been thwarted in their efforts to take advantage of the transfer, leaving them baffled and angry,” reported the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Chicago’s Three-Mile Limit

In Chicago, Mayor Richard M. Daley termed “ridiculous” the federal government’s mandate that 125,000 children in 179 failing Chicago schools be offered transfers to other public schools. There just isn’t room, Daley complained; besides, many of the recipient public schools also are “non-performing.” Ultimately, the city offered just under 3,000 transfer slots spread across 90 schools, prohibiting transfers to schools more than three miles away from a failing school.

Fritz Steiger, president of Children First America, a corporate-led foundation that supports school choice, said Daley had recognized the problem with government schools but failed to “make the logical leap to the obvious solution.” Catholic schools have been closing in the Chicago Archdiocese—14 in January 2002 alone. Vouchers could ensure students private as well as public school choice.

“How many of these schools would still be there to provide these students with an option for a quality education were there a voucher program in place in Chicago?” Steiger asked.

Delay in Vermont

In Vermont, the state took advantage of a loophole to delay offering choice at six public schools identified as needing improvement. Education Commissioner Ray McNulty said U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige agreed to let Vermont officials wait until mid-year for an analysis of 2001-02 test scores. That angered Libby Sternberg, executive director of Vermonters for Better Education.

“While several prominent champions of our public school system (and opponents of school choice) send or sent their own children to private schools, Vermont has slammed the door in the face of low-income parents who would merely have had the opportunity to choose another public school,” Sternberg noted in a letter to McNulty. “This is shameful.”

The numbers are small in Vermont, but huge in Los Angeles. There, almost 230,000 children qualify for publicly financed transfers, but fewer than 100 seats were available in better-performing schools.

Superintendent Roy Romer’s comments to the Los Angeles Times echoed the argument of many public educators: “Just to move children from one building to another building does not guarantee that they are going to learn that much better. We can take the existing school and make it work.”

A Choice—to Win the Lottery?

Baltimore school officials said they could accommodate transfers by only 194 of the 30,000 students eligible under NCLB. Baltimore Sun columnist Mike Bowler commented, “this isn’t school choice any more than the Maryland Lottery gives players a choice of winnings.”

A more genuine solution would use Title I money to transport children from Baltimore’s 83 failing schools to better-performing ones in neighboring districts, he said. The NCLB urges districts to seek compacts with neighboring districts for inter-district exchanges of students, but it does not require such transfers.

Similarly, Cincinnati officials said they had space to accommodate transfers by only 198 of the 10,000 children eligible for relief under NCLB. District spokesman Janet Walsh told the Cincinnati Enquirer the district had made every effort to abide by the spirit and letter of the law.

“We have been encouraging choice in Cincinnati Public Schools for decades,” she added. “A lot of parents have already exercised choice. The law does not ask them to leave.”

Outside the big cities, issues sometimes come into a different focus. Philip Shortman, superintendent of the Hays-Lodgepole district in Montana, said he expects his elementary and middle schools to work their way off the failing list by next year. And he supports the new NCLB requirements.

“It’s good,” he told the Billings Gazette. “It’s common sense. It’s made school districts more accountable. It’s about time. People have been too lax.”

Different Standards

To be sure, some questions about the law’s initial impact are legitimate.

Consider, for example, the U.S. Department of Education’s enumeration state by state of the 8,600 Title I-aided schools deemed to have fallen short of state-defined “adequate yearly progress.” The numbers differ wildly from one state to another. This may be the most egregious contrast: Michigan identified 1,513 failing schools, while Arkansas had none—zero—it identified as failing.

And there are more numbers to cause head-scratching. For instance, Massachusetts had 259 failing schools, but West Virginia had only 13. Georgia had 625 failing schools, while neighboring South Carolina reported just 31.

High numbers could be a cause for legitimate pride, a sign a state takes standards seriously and sets the bar high. In Michigan, however, a coalition of public education groups is urging the state to lower the standards so as to cut the number of schools in need of improvement.

And might low numbers be the product of a state’s hard work to raise the bar? When Virginia linked school accreditation to student achievement, most schools came up short. But after four years of intense focus on meeting the Standards of Learning, only 122 of 1,700 schools remain threatened with the loss of state accreditation. That may help explain why only 34 Title I schools in Virginia wound up on the NCLB sanctions list this summer.

The disparate and debatable numbers are a byproduct of lingering respect for local control. If the feds decreed uniform standards and assessments, Washington would be in charge of a national curriculum, which would violate the tenets of federalism. Still, the “goofy grades”—as the Grand Rapids Press dubbed them—raise doubts about early returns. It seems akin to the states taking an open-book test.

One Test

Eventually—after all states begin testing all children annually in grades 3-8—the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a gauge of student knowledge administered by a nonpartisan board since 1969, may generate enough comparative data to show which states are serious about standards and which are merely fooling their customers. That could encourage pro-reform activism state by state.

As for the NCLB’s being a lever for choice, the impact could become more pronounced as growing numbers of districts are required to offer parents the option of selecting private providers of supplemental services, including those that are faith-based.

Robert Holland is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute, a public policy think tank in Arlington, Virginia. His email address is [email protected].