Federal

Debate Emerges Over Proposed Rules on SES, Choice

By David J. Hoff — May 02, 2008 6 min read
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If the Bush administration has its way, school districts will be required to take a series of actions to ensure that parents and students know about their rights to free tutoring and school choice under the No Child Left Behind Act.

Depending on whom you ask, the proposed requirements are either reasonable steps to ensure that parents are informed of their options under the law or extra burdens that interfere with district officials’ ability to manage federal programs effectively and efficiently.

The proposed requirements to aggressively court parents and keep enrollment periods open “are best practices that have been documented widely,” said Steve Pines, the executive director of the Education Industry Association, a trade group based in Rockville, Md., whose membership includes providers of tutoring services under the law. “It’s a fair checklist.”

The proposed rules are “incredibly onerous for local school districts,” said Mary Kusler, the assistant director of government relations for the American Association of School Administrators, in Arlington, Va. “We can’t provide timely and accurate notice if the state doesn’t give us timely and accurate notice of what the test scores are. States have been dramatically late over the past six years.”

Increasing Participation

With a set of comprehensive regulations proposed by the Department of Education last month, the department is attempting to increase what the Bush administration and school choice advocates consider to be low participation rates in public school choice and tutoring—also known as supplementary educational services, or SES—under the 6-year-old law.

In the April 23 notice in the Federal Register proposing the rules, the Education Department, citing unpublished data, said that 14.5 percent of students eligible for tutoring are now enrolled in the free services. In a study published by the department in April, researchers found that in the 2003-04 school year, 17 percent of those eligible for SES enrolled in the tutoring, and 1 percent of those eligible for school choice transferred to a different school in their districts.

Although the number of students using SES services appears to be increasing, the percentage of students taking advantage of the free tutoring has declined in recent years because the number of SES-eligible students has grown faster than the number using it.

The participation rates aren’t higher, advocates say, because districts aren’t doing enough to communicate to parents that children in underperforming schools are eligible under the law to transfer to higher-performing public schools or sign up for free tutoring.

The rules proposed by Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings would require schools to notify parents two weeks before the start of a school year if their children were eligible for tutoring or to transfer to another public school under the law. The rules also would require districts to reach out to those parents through community groups and by sending home applications for the services with students.

The regulations would require districts to allow students to enroll in the tutoring at any time during the school year and offer companies or nonprofit groups that provide such supplemental services access to school buildings.

Other sections of the proposed rules would set a uniform method for calculating graduation rates and would require schools, districts, and states to break down graduation rates by racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups of students; would mandate that states re-evaluate the minimum number of students in a demographic subgroup that a school or district must have to be held accountable for that subgroup; and would make other administrative changes to the law’s implementation.

The department says the rules will become final later this year and be enforced in the 2008-09 school year. Public comments on the proposals are being accepted until June 23. (“NCLB Plan Would Add New Rules,” April 30, 2008.)

Communication Breakdown

Under the law, a revision of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, a district must offer all students the chance to transfer out of schools that have failed to make AYP, or adequate yearly progress, for two or more years. Districts must reserve 20 percent of their grants from the law’s Title I program to pay for tutoring for poor students in schools that haven’t made AYP for three or more years.

If demand for those services doesn’t use up all the money set aside, a district is allowed to spend the money for other purposes during the following school year under Title I, the main federal program for disadvantaged K-12 students. If a district didn’t comply with the proposed rules on outreach, it would need to reserve unspent tutoring and choice money for use on such services in future years.

The SES proposal addresses the communications breakdowns between districts and parents that may be one of the reasons, according to the Education Department, for low participation in public school choice and supplemental services under No Child Left Behind.

In the study commissioned by the department, researchers found that although almost all districts said they had told parents about their options for tutoring and choice, about half of the parents surveyed said they were unaware of the options.

Districts that have aggressively reached out to parents and kept enrollment periods open throughout the school year have seen increases in the number of students taking advantage of the tutoring option, said Mr. Pines of the Education Industry Association.

But critics of the regulations say that by specifying what districts need to do and mandating that they accept students whenever families want to sign up for tutoring, the federal government would be violating districts’ right to set their own policies.

“It is completely taking away control over a local district,” said Ms. Kusler of the AASA, which represents superintendents and other district-level officials. “There’s got to be a deadline [for enrollment] at some point.”

Without a deadline, Ms. Kusler said, school officials would need to dedicate staff members to managing SES enrollment.

Under the proposed rules, some districts may end up having to return some of their unspent SES and school choice money to the federal government, said one district administrator.

“We’re going to be in a terrible position,” said Ms. Marjorie C. Murray, the director of special projects for the 65,000-student Seminole County school district in Florida. “We need to keep that money.”

No ‘Red Flags’

Even though local officials object to the proposed requirements SES rules, the public proposal wasn’t as far-reaching as a draft that Education Department officials had distributed on Capitol Hill the week before the formal proposal, according to sources familiar with the draft.

Under the draft, districts would have been required to have 75 percent of parents of children eligible for SES either enroll their children in supplemental services or decline in writing to do so. If districts couldn’t do that, they would have been required to keep their unspent SES dollars to spend on those services in future years, which is less flexible than current policy.

The Bush administration removed the clause at the request of congressional Democrats, who objected that it would be too hard for districts to implement and would divert money to administrative tasks, according to sources.

Mr. Pines said the Education Industry Association supports such a requirement. In Florida, he said enrollment in tutoring programs rose when the state established a similar rule, at the 50 percent level.

But Mr. Pines said he understands why the federal Education Department removed the requirement from the final proposal.

“It’s a balancing act,” he said, between being flexible and not “waving a red flag at Congress or the next administration.”

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