Failing Schools Forced to Offer School Choice

For two years in a row, 8,652 public schools across the country have failed to meet state performance standards, according to the U.S. Education Department.

Under orders from Washington DC, these schools must now offer their students the option and funding to switch to a better performing school within their district. And in proposed federal regulations released on August 2, the department said they should offer more than one choice.

But as school districts scramble to implement or expand "school choice" programs, many say there's not enough space at better performing schools or time to accommodate all the students eligible for transfers.

Still, only a small number of eligible students nationwide are likely to request transfers this year, school officials say. .

That's because under the federal "No Child Left Behind" Act of 2001 that took effect in January, school districts are also required to give students who stay in low-performing schools federally-funded support services, like tutoring and other after-school programs.

For the 2002-2003 school year, Congress increased federal funding for public schools based on their population of low-income children by $150 million (raising it from $10.2 billion to $10.35 billion) and required school districts to set aside between 5 and 15 percent of their share to help cover the cost of "school choice" and supplemental services. State officers who administer Title I are now crafting lists of service providers to send to parents by the time school starts.

"My guess is that when parents are faced with the choice of staying in school and getting services or being transported to another part of town, they'll opt to stay," says Jeff Simering, legislative director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a non-profit, nonpartisan organization that represents large urban school districts. He's been helping superintendents implement "school choice" plans since January.

The number of schools labeled low performing varies from state to state. Illinois has 435, Michigan 1,513, Texas, 121 and West Virginia, 13. Only Wyoming and Arkansas have no schools of this kind.

The state's size and its quality of teaching help explain these differences. But the main reason for the drastically different numbers is that each state has its own technique for measuring the success of its schools. Some are much stricter than others. The evaluations should become more uniform next year. Another federal regulation of the "No Child Left Behind" Act that is in the process of being finalized requires states to apply similarly high standards to the evaluations of their schools.

In Chicago's school district, which already has a voluntary "school choice" program, 179 elementary schools were labeled failing. But only the lowest-income students at the 50 worst schools have the option to transfer. And they're only allowed to switch to schools within a three-mile radius of their home schoola restriction that leaves many of the better performing schools out of reach. That's because a lot of the better schools are full, according to Chicago schools CEO Arne Duncan.

But the district plans to spend $30 of $40 million new federal dollars on tutoring, teacher training and after-school services among other things for the179 low-performing schools and the 100 receiving schools.

Throughout Alabama, where more than 50 schools were labeled low-performing, school districts are hurrying to notify parents of their option to send their kids elsewhere. But they're not making any promises. Angela Mann, spokeswoman for schools in Montgomery County, home to the largest number of low-performing schools in the state, where 6,000 of 33,000 students are eligible to transfer, says that the district doesn't have the time to accommodate all the requests for changes that it has received.

In Maryland's Montgomery County, school officials have created a "school choice" plan that pairs the ten worst schools with the ten best ones. Low-income students were given priority to switch, but only a small number said yes. Of the 6,000 students attending low-performing schools, 102 have applied for transfers. Only five of those are from low-income families. The rest are from middle-class backgrounds.

Still, starting this year, students at the 10 troubled schools are going to get instructional aides, all-day kindergarten and smaller class sizes.

Meanwhile, none of the parents of children in the 12 low-performing schools in Washington, DC have been notified of their options because, according to Steve G. Seleznow, chief of staff for the city's public schools, officials are still fine-tuning the city's "school choice" program.

In passing the "No Child Left Behind" Act, Congress hoped to shake up the way the nation's public schools do business and hold them more accountable for student progress. States must bring all students up to "proficient" level on state tests within 12 years. The consequences for repeated failure get more serious each year. Eventually low-performing schools will have to offer students the option and funding to transfer to private schools.

Tags: Education