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Published in Print: August 7, 2002, as Few Choosing Public School Choice for This Fall

Few Choosing Public School Choice for This Fall

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The letters arrived in early May. More than 2,400 families got word from education officials in Colorado Springs, Colo., that their public schools were not making what the federal government calls "adequate yearly progress" on test scores.

Each family, the letters said, could choose from two nearby public schools that had avoided the stigma. While public school choice is not new to Colorado Springs, students at the low-performing schools are now entitled to a free bus ride to another school, thanks to a new federal law.

But even with that incentive, there hasn't exactly been a mass exodus. Call it a trickle. As of last month, only 37 students—less than 2 percent of those eligible—were planning to switch schools, according to an official in Colorado Springs District 11.

Whether it's few takers, limited space in urban schools, or no real alternatives in rural areas, evidence from across the country suggests the rhetoric from Washington may well exceed the initial real-world results of the new federal requirements. As states and districts scramble to meet the school choice provisions in the "No Child Left Behind" Act of 2001, it appears that relatively few students will parachute out of low-performing schools this fall.

In some big cities, despite the federal mandate, many families won't even get a choice. The Chicago school system, for instance, estimates that about 125,000 students are eligible to transfer. But with most schools filled to capacity, the 437,000-student district identified only 2,500 available slots.

Under the new law signed by President Bush in January, which reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, districts must offer students an alternative if the students' schools fail to make adequate yearly progress—as defined by each state—for two consecutive years. The districts are required to use a portion of their federal Title I aid to pay for transportation costs.

After a third year of not making adequate progress, the district also must allow families to select a provider of supplemental educational services, such as a private tutor or an after-school program. Again, the district must use some of its Title I aid to foot the bill.

The federal Department of Education announced in July that some 8,600 schools, based on state figures, would have to offer school choice this fall, though some state figures are still in flux. ("Frustration Grows as States Await 'Adequate Yearly Progress' Advice," July 10, 2002.)

The numbers range widely, based in part on how a state defines adequate progress.

At least a few states have indicated that they have, or will soon have, updated numbers based on test results from this past spring. Ohio, for example, first was listed as having 760 schools that hadn't made adequate progress for two years in a row. After new test results came in and the state changed its criteria, that number dropped to 415. And last week, the state removed 203 more from the list, citing a computing error.

In Colorado Springs District 11, officials got an early start on the school choice process. The 32,000-student district sent information packets to families of students from 10 schools that had been deemed low-performing. The packets included two letters: One from the school board explained details of the federal requirements. The second was a personalized letter from the principal of each school.

Sandra Suddarth, the principal of District 11's Wilson Elementary School, explained the situation to families and made a sales pitch for families to stay at Wilson.

"The staff at Wilson Elementary have been working hard to improve student achievement," she wrote. "It has, and will remain, our number-one focus." She outlined a few of the strategies under way, from 90-minute, uninterrupted blocks of literacy instruction to after-school tutoring.

Ande LaChance, whose child just finished first grade at the school, is one of the few who is leaving. Some of Ms. LaChance's gripes had to do with classroom instruction, but she also had non-academic problems. She complained, for example, about the school playground and about what she felt was inadequate help in administering her daughter's asthma medication.

"I just don't like the school," she said.

Families had about a month to return the request forms if they wished to transfer.

The receiving schools had scored at the average or higher on the state's accountability report card, said Taylor L. Young, District 11's Title I literacy supervisor. The district selected receiver schools that had excess capacity and were within a 30-minute bus ride.

Mr. Young said he doesn't really know why so few students in his district are switching schools.

"We probably could identify eight or nine variables and say, 'It may be one of those,'" he said. While the opportunity to transfer is over for students already in the district, a rolling window is open for any families who move into the district this summer.

Thanks, But No Thanks

Colorado Springs certainly is not alone. Examples from several other areas suggest the political fanfare over the choice requirement may have been overblown. As of last month:

  • In Fulton County, Ga., 331 out of about 11,000 eligible students from 10 schools were expected to transfer.
  • In the Clark County, Nev., school district, which includes Las Vegas, 109 out of about 4,500 eligible students from five schools were expected to move.
  • In Maryland's Montgomery County public schools, 101 out of about 6,000 eligible students in 10 schools had decided to move.

Each of those systems had room to accommodate more students.

Undersecretary of Education Eugene W. Hickok predicted that larger numbers of students were likely to transfer in the future.

"This year is probably a small indicator of what we're going to see next year," he said. With more information available and heightened awareness, he reasons, more families will exercise school choice.

That said, Mr. Hickok suggested that just because many families are staying put, it doesn't mean the choice provision isn't working.

"The goal is never to encourage people to leave schools, but ... to make sure people have the opportunity if they want to use it," he said.

Some researchers were not too surprised to hear of the low participation rates.

"I think there are a couple of factors that are explaining the dynamic," said Patrick J. Wolf, an assistant professor of public policy at Georgetown University in Washington who has written extensively on school choice.

"One is that just because a school is 'failing' overall, it doesn't mean it's failing to serve all its students," he said, noting that some parents may be generally pleased with the education their children are receiving. "Another reason is that switching schools takes a lot of effort, even if transportation is provided, even if information is provided. It's something that parents do, I think, only when they feel they have to."

Mr. Wolf said some parents may choose to stay if school leaders make clear that change is afoot.

At the same time, he predicted that if more options—especially a free, private-school education— were available, the numbers would be somewhat higher.

Amy Stuart Wells, an education professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, said that the reasons a family chooses a school cannot be boiled down to something as simple as test-score data.

"We act like they're going out to buy a microwave," she said. "It's much more complex."

Ms. Wells said such factors as familiarity and personal connections can make families hesitant to leave their neighborhood schools.

"There's just a lot of forces working against making a change," she said.

Another obstacle, of course, could be that some parents still don't know about the new options. Simply sending a letter, for instance, may not be sufficient. Other efforts to reach out to families may be needed.

'Little Difference?'

Officials from some districts suggest that the federal choice mandate will not prompt much change because of existing local policies.

"Our school system is already a choice school system," said Marty L. Bell, the deputy to the superintendent of the 96,000-student Jefferson County district in Kentucky, which serves the Louisville area. He said the system is divided into clusters of schools. Parents can select from any school in the cluster, and they receive free transportation for their children.

"It's going to make very, very little difference," Mr. Bell said.

One question in Kentucky right now is which schools will even have to comply with the federal measure. State officials want to wait for test results due in mid- September before establishing a final list of schools. The state department of education issued a press release July 15 saying federal officials had agreed to that timing. But the federal agency is reconsidering that decision.

"The previous communication with Kentucky was not cleared at the highest levels of authority," said Melinda Malico, an Education Department spokeswoman.

Some big urban districts may have a tough time accommodating all the students who want to change schools. Chicago has already taken thousands of eligible children out of the running, based on a strategy announced by the district last week.

While 179 low-performing Chicago schools were supposed to offer choice, the district has devised a plan that pares the list to 50 schools. First, 40 schools will each be paired with two better-performing schools within three miles. Another 10 low-performing schools have been linked with clusters of two or three schools offering specialized curricula.

But all 179 schools will get extra reading and tutoring support.

In Baltimore, district officials estimate that 30,000 students are eligible for what the district says are just under 200 slots at better-performing schools. The window for transfer requests was expected to close there late last week.

Capacity at receiver schools was determined in part by keeping within class-size ratios established by the 98,000-student system, said Vanessa Pyatt, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore district. But that approach may not be in keeping with the federal Education Department's expectations.

In a June letter to states and districts about school choice, Secretary of Education Rod Paige said school capacity is to be defined only as meeting health- and safety-code requirements. ("Department Seeks to Clarify ESEA School Choice Mandates," July 10, 2002.)

Few Rural Options

Rural areas may see little change for another reason: a lack of nearby schools.

"The issue for Oregon, and I think many states, ... is we have many small school districts where there is only one elementary school separated by 20 or 30 miles from another public elementary school," said Joyce Benjamin, an associate superintendent in that state's department of education.

Most of the 31 schools in South Carolina facing the choice mandate are in rural areas.

In Saluda County, S.C., the middle school's assistant principal sent a letter to families in mid-July explaining that they would not have any choice option because it's the only middle school in the district. The law says such districts must arrange with another district, "to the extent practicable," to transfer students.

Pete Stone, the superintendent of the 2,200-student system, said the district is working hard to improve the school, but argued that sending students to another district would, in fact, not be practical.

In Jasper County, S.C., students at Ridgeland Middle School can transfer to a K-8 school about 17 miles away, said Gwen Johnson Smith, the 3,000-student district's deputy superintendent. So far, no one has exercised that option.

Federal officials say they recognize the constraints in both rural and urban areas. Mr. Hickok urged such districts to be creative.

"Think about ways that you can make options available within the schools," he said. For example, he said, a district could make a choice of supplemental services available a year early or provide new distance-learning opportunities.

On the other hand, where possible, the agency wants districts to offer families more than one school choice option, as it makes clear in draft regulations just released.

Not every school system has taken that approach. Maryland's Montgomery County schools and Georgia's Fulton County district have paired lists of low- and high-performing schools, giving families just one choice.

Mr. Hickok said that method is not what the law intends.

"I think a choice is better than no choice," he said. "I think it doesn't really uphold the spirit of the law." But he added that the Education Department had no plans to take action in such instances, at least for now.

"The first year, we just have to see where things go," Mr. Hickok said. "The last thing we want is the federal government saying, 'No, no, no, you've got to do it this way.'"

Vol. 21, Issue 43, Pages 1,38-39

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