Tuscaloosa Parents Fight for School Choice

Published December 1, 2007

Tuscaloosa, Alabama parents are pressing for the right to take their child out of bad schools and put them in good ones.

The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001 gave parents a limited right of choice within the confines of government-controlled schools. NCLB allows parents to transfer their kids to better-performing public schools when their assigned schools persistently fail to help students learn to read and do math.

Now black parents in Tuscaloosa, Alabama are seeking to use NCLB public choice to enforce their civil rights. When the local school board proposed a rezoning plan last spring that, in the parents’ view, would have moved black children disproportionately into low-performing schools, they objected. Through letters to the editor and media interviews, they cited their right to choose better schools under NCLB.

Wasted Opportunity

Parents in other parts of the country can also assert this right, but relatively few have. Fewer than 2 percent of eligible families have opted for school transfers. In many cases, school bureaucracies have failed to fully inform them of their rights or have begged off with claims that better schools have no vacancies.

Even if Tuscaloosa parents don’t win their local battle, they are affecting the debate in Washington over NCLB reauthorization, which at press time was still underway.

“What is emerging,” said longtime parental choice advocate Clint Bolick, director of the Goldwater Institute Center for Constitutional Litigation, “is a coming together of left and right to coalesce around solutions that secure better educational opportunities for kids.

“The Citizens Commission on Civil Rights [CCCR], a liberal watchdog group, is the nation’s leading proponent of strong enforcement of the public school choice provisions of NCLB,” Bolick continued. “Its chairman, Bill Taylor, is one of the most respected veterans of the civil rights movement, and he recently broke ranks with many of his compatriots by writing a [Fordham Law Review] article supporting private school choice.”

‘Uphill Battle’

Because NCLB does not provide a “private right of action,” said Bolick, the Tuscaloosa parents “face an uphill battle.

“Without a true enforcement mechanism, NCLB is a toothless tiger,” Bolick continued.

Taylor’s CCCR detects bipartisan support for adding teeth to a reauthorized NCLB. In a September 15 article for Education Next, CCCR Executive Director Dianne Piche said states could be required to create slots to enable children to move from poor schools to good ones. To accomplish that, states could lift caps on public charter schools, expand high-achieving schools, or provide for inter-district transfers, she wrote.

Better Idea

As an alternative to government manipulation of supply, however, some say it would be simpler and more effective simply to award families tax-funded scholarships and let them choose the private or public school that best serves their children. A coalition led by Advocates for School Choice released such a proposal for NCLB on September 12.

“We firmly believe that every low-income child in a restructuring school should be given a promise scholarship to attend a public or private school of their parents’ choosing,” the coalition said in an open letter to the nation’s political leaders published in The Hill newspaper.

“This should happen immediately as a matter of social justice,” the letter continued. “Additionally, we believe that Congress should authorize and appropriate funds for national opportunity scholarships, where local non-profits could apply for federal grants that would provide scholarships to low-income children in schools that have failed for three consecutive years.”

Best Strategy

Lexington Institute education analyst Don Soifer sees potential for individuals’ civil rights claims cutting through a regulatory morass that has stymied progress in student achievement. In Illinois, he notes, the Civil Rights Act of 2003 makes it unnecessary to prove mean-spirited discrimination to establish a violation. Student achievement data may make the case.

Soifer sees “portability”–in which education money follows the child instead of going directly to schools–as “the best strategy for ensuring that schools do not become the twenty-first century’s vehicles for discriminating against a new generation of poor and minority schoolchildren.”

Under such a plan, Tuscaloosa families would be able to take a scholarship and pick any school instead of being shuffled from one assigned school to another.

Robert Holland ([email protected]) is a senior fellow for education policy with The Heartland Institute.