While DC Choice Simmers, NCLB Slow to Settle

Published December 1, 2003

The fate of President George W. Bush’s proposal to bring school choice to District of Columbia parents continued to hang in the balance as this issue went to press in early November. The plan passed by one vote in the House of Representatives this summer, but senate leaders have yet to announce their strategy for bringing it to a vote. Opponents have repeatedly threatened to block the move by filibuster.

Public Information Campaigns

In October, the U.S. Department of Education announced it had awarded $1.3 million to three prominent education reform organizations to advance the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act in select cities across the United States.

The Black Alliance for Educational Options, Greater Educational Opportunities Foundation, and Hispanic Council for Reform and Education Options were awarded grants to undertake public information campaigns and grassroots activities about different aspects of NCLB. Raising parents’ awareness and understanding of the law’s supplemental services and choice provisions will be a primary focus of their efforts. The groups will target their activities in Austin, Camden (New Jersey), Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Gary (Indiana), Milwaukee, Philadelphia, and San Antonio.

Under the NCLB, parents of children whose public schools fail to meet state performance standards are offered a range of educational options. Those include making their child’s share of federal Title I funding available for them to use to obtain supplemental services—including tutoring, after-school services, and summer school programs. Private or faith-based organizations can be eligible providers of those services, once approved by state education departments. Public school choice is another option available to parents under the 2001 law.

The new grants were issued as part of the Fund for the Improvement of Education, which supports nationally significant programs and projects to improve the quality of education.

Uneven Implementation Reported

NCLB implementation was the focus of an October 20 field hearing held by the House Education Committee in Greenville, South Carolina. Lawmakers used the hearing to help determine whether states and school districts were doing an adequate job of providing parents with the information necessary for them to take advantage of the new options.

Testimony indicated the law is being implemented unevenly in school districts across the country. According to Deputy Under Secretary Nina Rees, many states did not have the required test score data available to identify schools in need of improvement in time for the start of the 2002-03 school year. As a result, parents in those states would likely need to wait an entire school year before options such as public school choice are again made available.

In some states, potential providers of supplemental services were subjected to unreasonable contractual requirements and prolonged delays in processing applications, Rees said. She noted some school districts made it unduly difficult for parents to sign up to receive the new options.

Law Meets New Criticism

New criticism of NCLB came from various state and local policymakers nationwide. Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and Virginia Governor Mark Warner, both Democrats, were among the most prominent leaders to vent publicly about the law.

Warner in October complained Virginia had been given inadequate federal funding to implement the new law’s requirements. According to the federal Department of Education, Virginia’s share of federal education funding, $990 million for FY 2003, has increased by more then $220 million since NCLB was signed into law.

Chicago’s Daley, in a speech to the Council of Great City Schools, issued his own broad criticism of the law, which he said “confuses parents, stigmatizes schools, creates logistical nightmares, doesn’t target all the students who most need help, and is an unfunded mandate.”

The mayor’s criticism prompted a swift reaction from U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige.

“Unfortunately, he chooses to focus on how ‘tough’ this law is for the adults in the system, rather than on how this powerful, bipartisan law will help the children who need it most,” responded Paige. Paige also noted Chicago’s Title I funding had increased by 45 percent, to more than $240 million, in the two years since the law was passed.

McPherson Named for Number Three Department Spot

Bush on October 28 announced his intent to nominate Edward McPherson as Under Secretary of Education, the Department’s number three position. McPherson has most recently served as chief financial officer at the U.S. Department of Commerce. If confirmed, his role as a principal policy advisor will include budget, strategic planning, and all accountability issues under NCLB.

Don Soifer is executive vice president of the Lexington Institute. His email address is [email protected].