Cover Story

No parent kept informed

Public-school obstinacy may be keeping a highly touted education reform from making 'adequate yearly progress'

Issue: "Education: Sick schools," Sept. 18, 2004

After George W. Bush took office in 2001, he immediately set about fulfilling a campaign promise: reforming American public education, Texas-style.

As chief executive of the Lone Star State, Gov. Bush had presided over a public-school accountability system that sought to raise student achievement through a system of standardized testing. The results are still in dispute.

Disputes already are raging about whether schools are implementing key provisions of President Bush's education reform package, No Child Left Behind (NCLB)-particularly the provisions that provide parents in failing schools with such alternatives as free tutoring and government-sanctioned school choice.

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Frederick Hess, an education expert at the American Enterprise Institute, says tutoring and school choice are "the life rafts that Congress is throwing to children in our most troubled schools." He notes that "they are also hammers intended to pound districts into taking the hard steps essential to improving those schools." Many districts, though, do not want to take hard steps.

Now, states wishing to receive federal education funds must, by the 2005-06 school year, test every child in grades 3 through 8 in reading and math annually. Each state determines what constitutes "adequate yearly progress" toward the 2014 goal of universal student proficiency, even choosing its own tests.

If a school fails to show adequate progress for two consecutive years, it must notify parents of their right to transfer their children to a higher-performing district school. The failing school must use NCLB funds to pay for the transfer, including transportation costs. In the third year of failure, failing schools must allow low-income parents to choose tutors for their children, and again, the school must pay for it. Years four, five, and six of consecutive failure bring such consequences as turning a school into a charter or the takeover of a school by a private firm.

How many districts are cooperating with the school-choice provision? The short, official answer is nobody knows, since NCLB does not require that kind of tracking. Anecdotally, the number is "dismal," according to Leaving No Child Behind? Options for Kids in Failing Schools, a book co-edited by Mr. Hess and Fordham Foundation president Chester E. Finn.

Why? First, most parents remain in the dark about their rights under NCLB. (In a recent Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll, more than two-thirds of respondents said they knew "very little" or "nothing at all" about the law.) Second, the public-education system is stoutly resisting change. Certainly, the grip of status-quo unionism is part of the problem, but the mechanics of NCLB funding may also be to blame.

For example, the act requires public schools to use NCLB funds to pay for school transfers and tutoring. But schools get to keep any leftover cash, providing, in theory, an incentive for success. Instead, some schools are trying to appear successful, even when failing, so that parents don't take their federal money elsewhere.

Also, under this portion of NCLB, the fox guards the henhouse: The job of notifying parents about failing schools falls to . . . the failing schools.

In Worcester, Mass., that played out last year in the form of a muddy, obtuse letter. Seventeen of the district's 46 schools had been designated as needing improvement and 4,689 students were eligible for a school transfer.

The Worcester district sent parents a letter that characterized the schools' failure this way: "Although these schools are succeeding in some areas, there is still room for growth." The letter then detailed the limitations of NCLB's grading system and criticized the law's choice provisions, telling parents that "in most instances, because of space limitations, we may not be able to transfer every child in a family to the same school." The letter also noted that parents who switch their child to a higher-performing school forfeit their right to tutoring, and set up a series of time-consuming hoops for parents to jump through in order to exercise their NCLB rights.

"Plainly, [failing] schools have every incentive to present the act as muddled and misinformed, to highlight new and innovative programs being initiated [in their own schools], and to make the process of switching schools and securing supplemental services . . . as cumbersome as possible," writes Hoover Institution fellow William Howell in Leaving No Child Behind? "To undercut the act, districts need only explain to parents (again and again) why it is such a bad idea to change schools or to entrust private companies with their educational welfare."

That strategy worked in Worcester. After parents learned they'd have to endure a series of meetings at which they would explain why they wanted to change schools while administrators explained why they shouldn't, few parents came forward to exercise their NCLB rights.


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