A team of conservative legal scholars last week filed a complaint charging that two Southern California school districts fail to offer students school choice as required under federal law and asked the U.S. Department of Education to withhold the districts’ federal funds.
The Los Angeles Unified and Compton Unified school districts haven’t adequately notified parents of their school choice rights, and they haven’t provided enough options for the children currently attending schools defined as in need of improvement under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, according to the administrative complaint by the Alliance for School Choice and the Coalition on Urban Renewal and Education. The groups petitioned U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings to penalize the districts for those failures.
While the Los Angeles school system has informed parents of their transfer options, its notifications have been late and have demanded that parents make decisions in a matter of weeks, according to the complaint. The Compton district, on the other hand, failed to even tell parents of their options, Clint Bolick, the president of the Phoenix-based Alliance for School Choice, said in an interview.
Compton “has literally done nothing” to comply with the school choice requirements under the No Child Left Behind law, said Mr. Bolick, a lawyer who was instrumental in the religious case that resulted in the U.S. Supreme Court 2002 decision that publicly funded vouchers for tuition at religious schools are constitutional.
“They assume that no one can do anything about it,” said Star Parker, the president of the Coalition on Urban Renewal and Education, or CURE, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit organization that supports private school choice. “They are daring the federal government to take their federal funds.”
The Los Angeles school district has been audited by state and federal officials, who found the district to be in compliance with the NCLB law’s school choice requirements, said John F. Walsh, an assistant general counsel for the district. Efforts to reach Compton school officials last week were unsuccessful.
Mr. Bolick said that the groups, which represent parents from both districts, needed to file administrative complaints because the NCLB law does not grant parents the right to sue in federal courts.
The 4-year-old law requires states to assess students in reading and mathematics in grades 3-8 and at least once in high school. Schools that fail to make adequate yearly progress—or AYP—toward having students proficient in those subjects by 2014 are declared to be in need of improvement.
Schools that fail to make AYP for two consecutive years must offer students the chance to transfer to other public schools in the district that have better track records in meeting AYP. The law allows systems to enter into alliances with neighboring districts, but few districts take advantage of that, Mr. Bolick said.
In the 760,000-student Los Angeles district, 527 students out of more than 250,000 who were eligible in the 2003-04 school year actually made an NCLB transfer, the complaint says. No students chose to switch schools in the 2004-05 school year under the law in the 31,500-student Compton district.
The law does not give students the option of transferring to private schools.
Through their actions filed last week, CURE and the Alliance for School Choice hope to improve parents’ chances of enrolling their children in public schools with better student achievement. But they also say that they are working to win approval from Congress to allow parents to transfer their children to private schools if their public schools fail to make AYP.
In Compton, a city south of Los Angeles, all of the district’s four high schools and eight middle schools failed to make AYP in the 2004-05 school year, leaving parents no viable options to choose from in the public school systems, Ms. Parker said.
“What do you do when all of your schools are broken?” she asked. “That means No Child Left Behind has a flaw.”
Mr. Bolick said part of the motivation for last week’s action is to spotlight the ineffectiveness of NCLB’s public-school-choice options in urban areas with high numbers of schools failing to make AYP. But he added that the effort is the first step in a lobbying campaign to expand the federal law’s choice options to include private schools. Congress is scheduled to reauthorize the law next year—a process that is likely to be delayed a year or more.
The legal team that filed last week’s complaints included Kenneth W. Starr, a former federal appeals court judge and the independent counsel in the Whitewater probe.
Including private schools in the law’s choice provision would be unlikely to dramatically change the number of students leaving their neighborhood public schools, said Jack Jennings, the president of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington-based policy group that closely tracks the law’s impact.
Based on its surveys of states and districts, the center estimates that 2 percent of eligible students take advantage of the transfer options, he said.
“The low percentage means it doesn’t make sense for many parents, and it doesn’t work in school districts,” said Mr. Jennings, a former aide to Democrats on the U.S. House of Representative’s education committee.
In the short term, if Ms. Spellings took away NCLB funds from Los Angeles and Compton, it would send a message to other districts that they need to do more to ensure the current NCLB options are available to students, Mr. Bolick said.
“Such an action would have an echoing effect across the country,” he said.
Kevin Sullivan, an Education Department spokesman, declined to say whether the secretary would consider withdrawing federal funds from the California districts based on last week’s complaints.
“We can all do a better job—the department, states, and school districts—to make sure strong public school choice and tutoring options are available to all parents as provided by No Child Left Behind,” Mr. Sullivan said in a statement.
A version of this article appeared in the March 29, 2006 edition of Education Week as Complaint Targets NCLB Transfers in Calif.