VIRGINIA THOMAS WAS looking forward to retiring from her job as an administrative assistant at the Commerce Department in Washington, D.C., when her brother and his girlfriend abandoned their two children on her doorstep. Addicted to drugs, the parents were unable to care for their 2-year-old son Victor and 10-month-old daughter Gabrielle. With Washington's high-school graduation rate at less than 50 percent, Mrs. Thomas and her husband decided they could not in good conscience put the children in their local public school.
Mrs. Thomas and her husband knew they would have difficulty affording a private school for Victor, now 11, and Gabrielle, 8. Nonetheless both children attend Renaissance Christian Academy in nearby Suitland, Md. The only way they afford the tuition is through a private grant from the Washington Scholarship Fund. The fund covers half of the costs and the Thomas family takes care of the rest.
Last year with three months left of tuition to pay, Mrs. Thomas and her husband had only 92 cents left in the budget and received a loan from their local credit union. But she says the money is well spent. This year both children were on the honor roll and had perfect attendance. In second grade, Gabrielle already takes Spanish. Neither child has been left behind.
Here's another sad D.C. story: Joann Prigg's grandson John last year attended Stanton Elementary School. She visited John's kindergarten class one day and found him in the corner coloring while the other students learned to read.
"His teachers told me he was so cute, that he could color," Ms. Prigg said indignantly. "They failed him and were even going to promote him to first grade!" She is sending him to a local Catholic school this fall where he will repeat kindergarten. She also receives a scholarship to help defray tuition costs. But Ms. Prigg also has a daughter in a Catholic school, and she tells WORLD that the family does not eat as well as she would like; she would rather spend her money on education.
So some children who were left behind are getting out-but the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) that President George W. Bush signed in January 2002 is supposed to help every child. After one academic year under the law, however, results are mixed nationwide, particularly in the District of Columbia. And some in the education bureaucracy seem more concerned with making sure no public school is left behind.
The law requires testing for students in grades three through eight in math and reading and holds the schools accountable for the results. Schools that fail to make adequate yearly progress two years in a row are subject to corrective action.
If a school continues to fail after receiving special help and resources, its students are eligible to transfer to another public school with transportation provided. Disadvantaged students in these schools are eligible for "supplemental services" such as tutoring, after-school help, and summer school. Teachers are also required to take tests to meet new state standards and have until 2006 to meet professional qualification standards.
Fifteen D.C. public schools in the 2002-2003 school year were designated as "in need of improvement." Over 9,000 kids were eligible to transfer to a better school. Only 148 did. Many of the better D.C. public schools have no room for transfers. The story is the same elsewhere. In Chicago, of 125,000 kids eligible to transfer, 800 switched. In Los Angeles 200,000 students in 120 schools were eligible and less than 50 changed. In New York, although 220,000 children in over 300 schools were eligible, just 1,507 moved.
In Colorado, the Independence Institute found that in the first year of NCLB's implementation, many districts and schools did not completely inform parents of their ability to remove children from schools that had been given School Improvement Status. Some parents were misled, and 65 Colorado schools did not provide parents with an easy-to-understand explanation of their options at all. Thousands of parents received letters from administrators trying to discourage parents from transferring. Only one district in the state closely followed the notification requirements in the NCLB Act.
In the District of Columbia, many parents are complaining that they were notified too late about the public-school-choice option. D.C. public schools sent letters to parents on Aug. 12, and they had to choose another school by Aug. 19. This was too late for some to make any changes in their plans.
The desires of parents are clear. Washington, D.C., has the highest number of charter schools in the nation and large waiting lists for a limited number of slots. While some charter schools still lag behind private schools, others are performing at very high levels. At Meridian Public Charter School, 520 students in a transitional northwest D.C. neighborhood from pre-K through sixth grade use a curriculum based on that of the Calvert School, a century-old private school in Baltimore.
During a recent Meridian summer-school session, 3-year-olds in the Early Childhood Unit sat at small tables and learned their letters. Kindergartners were already reading, and closing in on their goal to read five books this summer. Third-graders worked on a reading-comprehension exercise. Curriculum coordinator Anne-Marie Felix said, "If kids are behind, we pull them out and adjust the curriculum accordingly."
Other District of Columbia schools do not provide such personal attention, even though D.C. schools spend more per student than any other school district in the nation. According to the Department of Education, at the end of the 2001 school year, D.C. schools spent $10,852 per student-nearly 50 percent higher than the national average. Including spending on school construction and maintenance, the total comes to $15,122 per student. Yet in a recent test of students in grades four and eight, the District of Columbia scored below every single state in terms of basic skills.
This summer at Miner Elementary, a new public school in northeast Washington, fifth-grade teacher Festus Sowho was teaching basic fractions to fifth- and sixth-graders during a summer session. Mr. Sowho complained that despite the nice facilities he does not have enough time in the day to teach the children the material they should learn. The union is against any change in school hours.
"I have floated the idea of lengthening the day a few times but always without success," Mr. Sowho said. When asked if the children are expected to complete homework assignments regularly, Mr. Sowho confessed, "I am not going to lie and say we check homework every day-we don't. We check it two or three times a week, but not always."
Tracy Tucker, a Howard University graduate and single mother of two had her son Nicholas tested at age 5 because he had difficulty with speech pronunciation. Ms. Tucker's local public elementary school lost Nicholas's test scores. Ms. Tucker lost confidence in the school's ability to work with her son. At 7, Nicholas now attends a local charter school where it took six months to test him. The school did not recommend speech therapy and told Ms. Tucker that Nicholas's incorrect way of speaking was common to African-American children. Administrators said the school would intervene if he had not stopped by eighth grade. Ms. Tucker was furious. She works with Nicholas at home, but desires professional help. "Parents are desperate," she said. "Nicholas can't wait until D.C. schools are fixed."
Patricia Pendleton, a Woodland Terrace resident and parent of three, said her son's education became poorer when he attended a local charter school. She would prefer a voucher to send him to a private school. "There is no accountability at all for these public-school principals," she said.
The White House hopes that will soon change. In early June, all 50 states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia submitted accountability plans to the Department of Education outlining how they will comply with the new law. But already it is clear that in some states NCLB will have little impact. In Maine, a largely rural state, only one district has more than one high school for transferees. "Public-school choice is not a very good fit for us," said Patrick Phillips, Maine's deputy commissioner of education. Last year only one student in the state took the option to transfer schools under No Child Left Behind.
In urban areas NCLB also has its limitations. The original bill contained a provision for children from failing schools to obtain vouchers to transfer to a private school of their choice, but the White House dropped this provision during negotiations with Congress.
This spring, Washington, D.C.'s mayor Anthony Williams surprised many by coming out in favor of vouchers for the District. "No Child Left Behind is good," he said at a Capitol Hill hearing on vouchers. "It is necessary but it is not sufficient."
President Bush agrees. With NCLB barely a year old, he endorsed in early July a bill sponsored by Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) that would give $15 million in federal vouchers to D.C. children to attend private schools, for as much as $7,500 per student. This would be extra money-above and beyond what funds public and charter schools. Mr. Bush also announced that he would ask Congress for $75 million for a national school-choice incentive plan, open to several cities. This is the first time the president has proposed national school choice since January 2001.
The proposal "is the beginning of an experiment that will show whether or not private-school choice makes a difference in quality education in public schools," Mr. Bush said. "I happen to believe it will." The president said private-school operators would also have to report the test scores of their voucher students, in the spirit of NCLB. Education Secretary Rod Paige will submit the report to Congress.
Catholic schools stand to receive the most students if the bill passes. They graduate 95 percent of their students at a fraction of the cost of public schools. At Assumption School in southeast Washington, tuition costs $3,100 per student. The K-8 school has no central air conditioning, but students at the July summer-school session this year were attentive and parents populated the hallways and administrative offices. Eleven-year-old Jasmine Primas attended a public school before enrolling at Assumption for sixth grade. She said classes are much more difficult at Assumption: "Math is much harder here, but my other school did not challenge me enough."
Demand for more educational choice among Washington parents is high. The Washington Scholarship Fund that helps Virginia Thomas pay private-school tuition for Victor and Gabrielle had 1,000 applicants last year for 100 slots. A 1998 Washington Post poll found that 56 percent of city residents said they favored the idea of vouchers. In 1999, the nonpartisan Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies surveyed African-Americans and found support for school vouchers to be at 60 percent.
In early July the Davis bill was voted out of the Government Reform Committee by one vote. The Senate Appropriations Committee and the full House were scheduled to vote on versions of the bill late last week. Democrats blocked the voucher measure in committee just before the August recess. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) has threatened to delay the passage of the D.C. bill unless the voucher provision is revoked. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) sided with the Democrats over church-state concerns, despite the 2002 Supreme Court ruling that vouchers for religious schools are constitutional.
Both the editorial boards of The Washington Times and The Washington Post support vouchers. The Post opined, "It's inexcusable for a group of senators, from many distant states, to turn this into a partisan issue of their own."
In a surprise move, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the former mayor of San Francisco who had "never supported a voucher program," penned an op-ed in The Washington Post in support of Mayor Williams. "Ultimately this issue is not about ideology or political correctness," wrote Sen. Feinstein. "If supporting the mayor's proposal will help us to better understand what works and what doesn't in terms of educating our youth, then I believe Williams should be allowed to undertake this experiment."
The large waiting list of students attempting to get into D.C.'s charter schools shows that there is a demand for more educational choices than those already available. Mayor Williams says reform plans must include provisions for private-school choice: "I cannot tell parents that they must continue to wait while there are other outlets in their midst."
-Catherine Edwards Sanders is a freelance writer in Washington