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When school choice isn't: this fall, millions of kids have the right to leave failing schools. Too bad there's nowhere else for them to go.

CENTRAL JUNIOR HIGH SCHOOL IS A typical troubled school in the down-on-its-luck working-class town of Zion, Ill. Located an hour north of Chicago near Lake Michigan on the Wisconsin border, Zion's religious origins and former glory are still apparent in the town's biblically named streets, parks, and skating rinks. In recent decades, however, the city has struggled with drugs and gang violence, and tax revenues from the nuclear power plant built here 20 years ago dried up after the plant closed in 1999.

Zion's schools have also struggled. Going by last year's test scores, Zion is home to four of the nearly 600 failing schools in Illinois. More than half of the town's 3,000 elementary and junior high students are poor, and more than 60 percent are minorities. Before the local bond referendum passed last year, the schools were seriously underfunded. Central, which houses more than 600 seventh- and eighth-graders from around the district, has been "failing," and resorted to school uniforms in an attempt to limit gang and racial conflicts on campus.

Carol Suetmeyer's daughter, a student at Central, has witnessed firsthand the school's problems, which aren't limited to academics. In one harrowing incident last year, teachers and administrators couldn't find the 14-year-old girl for several hours. She was eventually located, sale and sound, but for her mother the experience was terrifying. "I'm very protective of my daughter," she says. "Nobody knew where she was"

Like several other parents in her town, Suetmeyer would love nothing better than to take her daughter out of Central and send her to another school this fall. Federal education-reform legislation passed this year--the No Child Left Behind Act--was designed by President Bush and Congress to allow parents like Suetmeyer to do just that, by giving them the option to transfer their children to better schools. But here's the catch: In Zion, there is no better school.

A small school district, Zion has five mostly overcrowded elementary schools but only one junior high school. The next closest junior high schools are not far away, in the next town over, but the new law doesn't require schools to accept transfer students from other districts. And neighboring school districts--especially wealthier ones--are no more interested in opening their doors to poor students than they were during the days of busing. As a result, Suetmeyer will be sending her daughter back to Central.

Her difficulty is a snapshot of what's likely to come this fall, when the nearly 10 percent of all students who attend the nation's 8,600 "failing" public schools (4 million students in all) will have the right to choose other public schools. There are more than 14,000 school districts in the nation, but about one in three has just a single school per grade level.

"My guess is that each district will want to keep itself separate," says Dennis Divoky, the principal at Central. "Community control [of schools] is the reason that there are 900 districts in Illinois"

School choice, as written into federal law, was intended to provide an escape for kids stuck in lousy situations, while at the same time spurring competition for reform. It came about as a compromise between advocates and foes of private school vouchers by creating parental choice, though only within public schools. In exchange for a significant increase in federal funding, the new law demands that failing (or "persistently unsafe") schools give parents new transfer options and cover the costs of transportation to another school. To give teeth to this requirement, up to 20 percent of each district's federal funding can be spent on transportation and such supplemental services as after-school tutoring.

Zion's experience, combined with the results of a recent two-year-old federal choice program, suggests that the impact of school choice on school performance will be far less revolutionary than its supporters from both parties envision. As a result, if left unaddressed, the situation is likely to strengthen the conservative argument for vouchers, which was recently bolstered by a Supreme Court decision allowing public money to be spent on such payments to private religious schools. More importantly, though, the choice program promises to leave struggling parents like Suetmeyer even more frustrated, and threatens to distract attention from the work on proven remedies to fix poorly performing schools.

Exercising Options

Despite its fanfare, the choice program enshrined in the new federal law is not exactly new. It is, in fact, based closely on a two-year-old federal program created in a compromise between the Clinton administration and House Republicans that funneled $360 million to help improve failing schools, but failed to provide any real choice for parents. State reports from the program's first year revealed that remarkably few transfers occurred. In Vermont, just 12 students transferred from two schools in 2000-01; in North Dakota, 34 students transferred; in Kansas, none; and in Florida, not a single school met the state's definition of failure. The numbers didn't increase much last year, either. In Baltimore, for example, just 22 students changed schools.

As it turns out, providing viable transfer options for parents is much harder than it sounds--especially when the program is underfunded, poorly publicized to parents, limited to low-performing schools, administered by unenthusiastic school officials, and full of bureaucratic loopholes. Educators raise legions of logistical, financial, and educational objections to giving parents more say in choosing their children's schools: There is no other school not already overcrowded. There is no other school not performing poorly. No neighboring district is willing to take the complainants' children. The district can't afford to pay for transportation. Transferring students would violate class-size reduction initiatives or union contracts. The district includes only one school per grade span. State or local policy limits choice, or a consent decree operates to limit it.

Given these loopholes (and real difficulties), an amazing number of districts were unwilling or unable to provide choice and, thus, not required to allow or enable students to move. However valid they may be in some cases, in many others, the reasons offered appear to be more a function of lack of enthusiasm on the part of bureaucrats, and, more surprisingly, of parents.

Parental Discretion

Perhaps nowhere are the limits of federally mandated choice programs more apparent than in New Orleans, where fewer than 20 of the 10,000 eligible students chose to transfer last fall. Initially, the district claimed to "lack capacity" to provide such choices to students attending failing schools, which would have exempted it from the requirement under the old law. Apparently none of the better schools in the district had room to accept more students--at least according to those schools' principals.

Dubious of those claims, the district then conducted a utilization study and found almost 150 spaces at nearby schools--not nearly enough to handle any significant move from among the estimated 10,000 eligible students, but more than had been expected. To make the process fair, the district decided to set up a lottery for those slots. To the astonishment of school administrators, no lottery was necessary. Fewer than 70 parents expressed interest in transferring their children to other schools.

One obvious reason for the lack of interest was that the district prohibited parents from choosing any of the more popular citywide enrollment schools, limiting the choices only to other neighborhood schools that aren't considered much better. Another was that the district had dedicated more than $5 million in federal and local funds to provide the 11 struggling schools with smaller classes, better teachers, and other resources and improvements. The letter that New Orleans parents received notifying them of their right to transfer reads more like an advertisement for the failing schools than an admission of their shortcomings and a listing of what other schools might be available. "We are addressing the academic needs of your current school in an effort to improve the quality of instruction that your child receives," it begins, and goes on to list 10 promised improvements in boldface, only mentioning the choice option two paragraphs later. Even for those parents who might be interested, the letter omits the names of the alternative schools.

Among educators in New Orleans and elsewhere, conventional wisdom holds that lack of space and parental preference for neighborhood schools are the major obstacles to choice programs. But lack of space has a long and notorious history as a rationale for limiting choice options for low-income students, especially when it is left to the discretion of local administrators or principals at higher-performing, typically more affluent schools. And parental interest is proportional to the type and amount of information provided about the performance of their children's school and the choices available for transfer.

Marie Farve, president of the New Orleans PTA, believes that most parents who haven't already moved their children aren't interested in choice anyway. Indeed, as The Washington Monthly documented last year (see "Student Movement," September 2001), poor public-school students change schools frequently, a fact that contradicts the basic assumption behind the choice program that poor students are "stuck" in a single bad school.

A General Accounting Office study found that one third-grader out of every six has attended three of more schools since entering the first grade, a problem that is even more acute in the inner city. A recent study of Chicago students revealed that fewer than half who entered school in first grade attended the same school in fourth. Some schools retained fewer than 30 percent of their first-graders. Pupils who changed schools most frequently had worse test scores than other poor students, even though one of the main reasons parents said they moved their children was to find a better school. The problem, it seems, is not the ability to switch schools, but to switch from bad schools to genuinely good ones.

Wishful Thinking

The Bush administration claims that the new choice requirements will break down bureaucratic barriers to choice, but many observers doubt it. True, under the new law, districts will no longer be able to claim that they lack the capacity to provide choice. Nor will they be allowed to pass local resolutions prohibiting the practice. But in a fit of wishful thinking, the new law simply erases these options, providing no clear mandate to ensure that choices actually exist. Nor does it require school administrators to arrange transfers with neighboring schools if they truly do lack capacity.

Most significantly, the law lacks any real enforcement mechanism, and the Department of Education has a long tradition of glacially slow enforcement. In the eight years since Congress last revisited K-12 education, the department sanctioned few states for not meeting federal requirements. Last year, it gave more than $200 million in second-year-choice funding to 43 states and jurisdictions, despite the widespread dearth of students who were actually transferring schools.

Already there are signs that the nation's school districts are thwarting the new law's intent. This spring, in Montgomery County, Md., one of the nation's most progressive school districts, only 102 students applied for transfers available under the new law--fewer than 2 percent of the more than 6,000 who attend failing schools. (Of those 102, only five fit the category of low-performing, low-income students to whom the program was targeted.) Some states, such as Arkansas, Virginia, and Wyoming, have set the bar so low that they have few, if any, "failing" schools. Others still have not released final lists of choice schools, creating confusion and limiting interest. In Illinois, state officials re-crunched the numbers for "failing" schools and came up with a new list that was half as long (as was the new list of eligible students). At the same time, state legislators passed a new law giving districts more wiggle room by permitting schools that are close to capacity or those with academic specialties (such as math-and-science schools) to decline transfer students. In Chicago, that leaves only 3,000 slots for 124,000 children whose parents are entitled to reassign them. And after the state re-ran the data for failing schools, it turned out, suddenly, that Zion no longer had any.

So what to do with the 8,600 schools the government has identified as failing?

One option would be for the feds to force states and school districts to work harder to break down educators' resistance to transfers from failing schools, and making sure parents of kids in failing schools know about the option and benefit of moving their kids to better ones. Still, resistance to transferring students between different districts will always be high. Parents are not as eager to move their children out of even the worst schools as some in Washington imagine. And even if the government could achieve perfect compliance with the law, there would still not be nearly enough seats in accessible, better schools for the vast majority of entitled children who are stuck in bad ones.

Another option that has worked well in some places, like East Harlem, is "mandatory choice," where all parents are forced actively to choose which schools their kids will attend, creating a diversity and competition that's often lacking in places with less pressure on parents to shop around. In these programs, parents are thoroughly apprised of their options and thus lured into "shopping" for the best schools. But it's hard to know whether such programs could be replicated nationally. East Harlem had the benefit of some extraordinary administrators, who also worked hard to create many new programs within existing schools so that parents actually had something to choose from.

A third option would be to increase the supply of better schools through measures like vouchers and charter schools. But there are capacity and quality problems with both of these options. Given that the average voucher being touted today is worth about $2,500, poor parents would still be hard-pressed to come up with thousands of dollars of their own money to pay for tuition at most private-schools. Even without vouchers (or their close cousin, tuition tax credits), affordable parochial schools in cities with substandard school systems like Washington, D.C., already have huge waiting lists that rival those for public housing. (Vouchers, incidentally, would likely go to the kids already enrolled in parochial schools rather than open new slots for kids looking to escape public schools.) Even the largest voucher programs currently being advocated would accommodate only a tiny fraction of the millions of eligible students from low-performing schools, leaving parents like Suetmeyer hardly better off than when they had no choice at all.

Charter schools have been launched in several big cities to try to give students an alternative to bad public schools, but their quality so far is uneven at best. In Washington, D.C., where Congress required the city to set up a charter-school system at a pace unheard of elsewhere, test scores are worse than in regular public schools, even factoring in the programs aimed at the learning disabled. And these schools have been plagued by many of the same scandals as the regular schools. (Last year, for instance, some parents discovered that one teacher was actually a former prison guard with no academic credentials.) While there may be some promise in this initiative, it will be years before it matures into anything better than what kids can get now, let alone with the capacity to accommodate millions of new students.

While it's worth rooting for almost any reform that truly provides better choices for students stuck in dysfunctional schools, it's hard not to conclude that the most efficient way to improve education for the millions of such children is by doing it the old-fashioned way: by fixing the schools they already attend. The vast majority of kids in failing schools are going to be stuck in those schools or others not much better. Letting the choice issue distract from the task of finally turning those schools around would be a shame. The sooner we recognize this and start doing more of what we know can improve achievement--better teachers, higher academic expectations, summer school, smaller classes and schools--the better.
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Author:Russo, Alexander
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Sep 1, 2002
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