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Published in Print: September 20, 2006, as Groups Press for Enforcement on NCLB Choice Option

Groups Press for Enforcement on NCLB Choice Option

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With few students taking advantage of their school choice options under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, advocates are increasing the pressure on officials at all levels to meet the letter of the law.

A grassroots group filed a complaint last month with the Department of Education, saying that the Birmingham, Ala., school district had notified parents of their right to transfer their children just three days before school began last month. That didn’t give parents enough time to decide whether to send their children elsewhere in the district, the complaint says.

Ronald E. Jackson, the executive director of Citizens for Better Schools in Birmingham, Ala., prepares to address his city’s school board last week. The group is pressing for stronger federal enforcement of the No Child Left Behind Act’s school choice provision.
Ronald E. Jackson, the executive director of Citizens for Better Schools in Birmingham, Ala., prepares to address his city’s school board last week. The group is pressing for stronger federal enforcement of the No Child Left Behind Act’s school choice provision.
—Joe Songer for Education Week

“As far as we’re concerned, choice is … fleeting and vanishing,” said Ronald E. Jackson, the executive director of Citizens for Better Schools, the Birmingham-based group that filed the federal complaint.

Proponents of school choice in California say they are disappointed that federal officials have not taken action on their complaint, filed in April, that the Los Angeles Unified and Compton Unified districts are undermining parents’ options for transferring their children out of schools that are declared in need of improvement under the 4½-year-old No Child Left Behind law.

“It’s very important that the U.S. Department of Education send a signal that it will take stern action on school choice,” said Clint Bolick, the president of the Alliance for School Choice, a Phoenix-based legal-advocacy group for vouchers and other forms of educational choice that is assisting parents with the California complaint. “Otherwise, we are in danger of having the No Child Left Behind Act gutted by the very administration that brought it into existence.”

Mr. Bolick said Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings made “a strong statement” in a May 15 letter to chief state school officials, in which she threatened to withhold NCLB money from states that failed to enforce the school choice provision in their districts.

But he said he is worried that Ms. Spellings is undermining school choice by telling districts they may get waivers to offer tutoring and other academic services the year before complying with the school choice provision. That switches the order the law requires. ("Department Expands NCLB Tutoring Pilot Programs," Aug. 9, 2006.)

Morgan S. Brown, the head of the Education Department’s office of innovation and improvement, said: “There has been a substantial effort under way to work with districts with technical assistance ... to see what we can do to make choice more available.”

More Action Coming

While the California and Alabama school choice complaints are the only ones believed to be pending with the Education Department, advocates say that they expect to take further actions because participation in choice is lagging and districts are restricting parents’ access to it.

“There will be more complaints coming out of Birmingham and other places until the districts become more responsible to the needs of parents,” said Dianne M. Piché, the executive director of the Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights, a Washington-based watchdog group that supports the NCLB law and its choice requirements.

About 1 percent of students eligible to transfer out of a low-performing school actually exercise their right to do so under the federal law, Ms. Spellings said in her May 15 memo. Research by Ms. Piché’s group and others have produced similar estimates.

Schools that are labeled as “in need of improvement” have failed to meet their student achievement goals under NCLB for two consecutive years. School choice advocates say the percentage of transfers is low because districts undermine parents’ options by failing to notify them early enough and by offering them few transfer choices within their districts. But other education advocates say the participation rates mirror those of states and districts that have had open-enrollment policies for several decades.

“The history of the movement is 1 or 2 percent [change schools], even after you label a school” as poor-performing, said Bruce Hunter, the chief lobbyist for the American Association of School Administrators, an Arlington Va.-based group representing public school superintendents.

In Birmingham during the current school year, 108 of the 9,285 students in schools in need of improvement have exercised their right to attend another school that is making adequate yearly progress, or AYP, under the federal law. The participating students started at their new schools the day after Labor Day, three weeks after the 2006-07 school year started, said Regina T. Waller, a spokeswoman for the 31,800-student district.

The district’s letter informing parents of their right to choose a different school was dated Aug. 7—three days before school began—because the state didn’t publicly announce AYP results until that day, Ms. Waller said.

Because the district knew the AYP results and which schools would be required to offer choice before the Aug. 7 announcement, it prepared the letter in advance and delivered it to the post office on Aug. 6, she said.

An Earlier Inquiry

Mr. Jackson, a former Democratic member of the Alabama House of Representatives, said that letter overemphasized positive results, such as two schools that had made AYP for the first time, and didn’t fully explain why the 27 schools that are in need of improvement are on the list.

Parents weren’t “comprehensively informed about the academic choices,” said Mr. Jackson, who added that he is not affiliated with a political party.

He said his complaints about the Birmingham district and the Alabama Department of Education’s oversight of it are falling on deaf ears in Washington.

“We’re trying to push [the federal Education Department] off its do-nothing stool,” Mr. Jackson said.

The department did intervene in the Birmingham district last year in response to an earlier complaint from Mr. Jackson’s group that the district wasn’t even offering school choice to parents. The department instructed the district to offer school transfers in the middle of the 2005-06 school year because the district had failed to do so before the year started. ("U.S. Orders Alabama District to Offer NCLB Transfers," Jan. 4, 2006.)

In the complaints against the Los Angeles and Compton districts, parents cited what they see as similar efforts by the districts to curtail parents’ options for transferring their children out of schools needing improvement. The California education department is investigating the complaint, but the federal department hasn’t acted on it, Mr. Bolick said.

Vol. 26, Issue 04, Pages 28,30

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