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Published in Print: May 19, 2004, as Choice Option of U.S. Law Used, Report Finds

Choice Option of U.S. Law Used, Report Finds

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More families are benefiting from the school choice mandates of the No Child Left Behind Act than is generally recognized, despite the highly uneven response to the transfer requirements from school districts and states, a report released last week concludes.

The report concludes that the federal requirement that students in underperforming public schools be given the choice to attend higher-achieving ones is offering "an immediate benefit" to thousands of low-income and minority students while contributing to "racial, ethnic, and economic desegregation." It was released by the Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights, a Washington watchdog group that monitors enforcement of federal civil rights laws.

Yet the commission also recommends a series of changes both to the law and how it is enforced. Congress should require states and districts to ensure that children from schools deemed "in need of improvement" under the law can cross district lines to enroll in better schools, the report says.

The existing policy of requiring districts to pursue interdistrict transfer agreements if they lack enough solidly achieving schools is "the least efficacious NCLB choice requirement," it says.

Little Help from States

"The impact of this flabby policy is severe because in a great many cases, school districts with large numbers of low-performing schools are surrounded by more affluent districts with high-performing schools," argues the report, which was written chiefly by Cynthia G. Brown, a consultant who served for 15 years as the director of educational equity for the Washington- based Council of Chief State School Officers.

See Also...

See the accompanying table, "Integration and Student Transfers."

The commission concluded that most states ranked the choice provisions as a low priority and did little to help districts carry them out effectively. And while it cites some districts that it believes are doing an exemplary job of complying with the law, the commission strongly criticizes others for discouraging transfers.

For example, some districts have gone so far as to violate the law’s requirement that they provide transportation for transfers, the report says.

Still, the commission concludes in its 130-page report that the choice provisions are often enabling poor and minority youngsters to move to schools with less poverty and greater diversity. That is seen as an especially promising feature of the law by the 22-year-old commission, which has long pressed for greater racial and ethnic integration in schools.

Data Incomplete

Based on its survey, which yielded responses from 47 states and 137 selected school districts, the commission could confirm that some 70,000 students exercised choice under the federal law during the current school year.

But because of incomplete data from many locales, that figure greatly underestimates the actual number of students who applied to transfer or actually did so, according to the report.

In places for which the commission received complete data for both years, the report says that the proportion of students who requested transfers under the law rose from 2.3 percent to 6.2 percent from 2002-03 to 2003-04, or from 16,038 students to 53,604.

"An extraordinary number of parents are seeking transfers, and they are doing so because they know the new schools will provide a better opportunity for success," said William L. Taylor, a Washington civil rights lawyer who chairs the commission.

Yet the commission found that far more students applied than actually changed schools. Again based on partial data, the report says, 1.7 percent of eligible students transferred to higher-performing schools this school year in selected states and districts for which complete information was available, "less than half of the 5.6 percent of eligible students who had requested transfers."

But the report also cautions that, "[b]ecause so few districts with large enrollments submitted complete data for both school years on the number of students actually transferring, the percentages calculated by the commission are of little use."

Noting that its work was hampered by incomplete data, the commission called on the U.S. Department of Education to "enforce the data collection and reporting provisions of the law."

It also urged the department to "conduct compliance reviews of states and districts reporting very little school choice taking place relative to the numbers of schools in need of improvement."

Vol. 23, Issue 37, Page 5

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