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More Students Transfer Schools, But Total Is Small, Study Reports

January 21, 2004 5 min read
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A recent survey of big-city school districts suggests a notable upswing in the number of students opting out of low-performing public schools under the No Child Left Behind Act, even as the total remains relatively small.

The papers are available at no charge by sending an e-mail to ekluver@aei.org.

View the accompanying chart, “Transfers Growing.”

Three times as many students, about 18,000, transferred to another public school this past fall compared with last school year, based on data from 41 school systems. The total is less than 2 percent of children eligible to transfer under the federal law in those districts.

“No one factor appears to explain the lack of movement,” writes Michael D. Casserly, the executive director of the Washington-based Council of the Great City Schools, which conducted the survey. “But the upward trend suggests additional time, experience, and better communications with parents may solve some—though not all—of the problems districts are having with the choice provision.”

Mr. Casserly’s paper is one of 10 issued last week at a two-day conference in Washington, sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, to examine issues related to the school choice and supplemental-educational-services provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act. This coming August, the essays will be published in a book edited by Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Fordham Institute, and Frederick M. Hess, a resident scholar at the AEI.

Under the federal law, if a school does not make adequate academic progress for two years in a row, the district must allow students to transfer to higher-performing schools in the district. After a third straight year, it also must let parents select a provider of tutoring or other extra academic help. In both cases, the district must use a portion of its federal aid to pay the costs.

Informing Parents

Mr. Casserly’s paper, “No Child Left Behind: A Status Report on Choice and Supplemental Services in America’s Great City Schools,” offers a significant glimpse at districts’ experiences with the law’s mandates for offering new educational options.

More than half the 44,000 students who requested transfers for this academic year were turned down, according to data from the 41 urban districts that replied to the survey and had schools subject to the school choice mandate. Only 18 districts filled all transfer requests. In the surveyed districts, the number of schools subject to the choice mandate rose by 337 to 1,694 this school year.

All 41 districts sent letters informing parents about their options. Of those, 22 went a step further with Web site information, newsletters, fliers, phone calls, parent and community meetings, advertisements, or media announcements. Mr. Casserly found that most districts— 34 out of 41—provided two or three choices of schools for transfer.

On supplemental services, he said that of the 32 districts that responded and had schools subject to the mandate, officials expected to serve almost 134,000 students this school year. The number of service providers ranged widely: Eight districts had 31 or more providers; 20 had between 11 and 30 providers; and four had 10 or fewer.

William G. Howell, a professor at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, wrote a paper that examines parent knowledge of the No Child Left Behind law—especially about the requirements for educational alternatives—and factors that may affect parents’ level of interest in such options.

The paper, “Parents, Choice, and NCLB’s Future,” draws heavily on a telephone survey of public school parents in Massachusetts conducted last summer.

“Amazingly, only one out of every four parents with children in underperforming Massachusetts public schools successfully identified the school’s status, and hence grasped the most basic information required to take advantage of [the law’s] choice and supplemental-service provisions,” Mr. Howell writes.

The study found that parental awareness of a school’s status under the law was stronger in higher-performing schools. “Those who need the most information about the performance of their public schools have the least,” Mr. Howell says in the paper.

Beyond lack of knowledge, he says, there may be many reasons to explain why parents might not pursue the law’s alternative schooling options. One is that most parents are basically satisfied with their children’s schools.

In the survey, 82 percent of parents gave their schools a grade of either an A or a B. At the same time, parents were more inclined to view negatively public schools their children did not attend, so the option of transferring to another school in the district might have appeared unattractive.

“Across the board,” Mr. Howell says, “parents appear considerably more enthusiastic about the prospects of sending their child to a private school than any other educational setting.

Mr. Howell concludes that while parents’ lack of interest was a significant factor in low participation rates for the law’s options, “insufficient information appears to be a greater barrier.”

‘Ruling the Marketplace’

Another paper, “The Invisible Hand of No Child Left Behind,” by Siobhan Gorman, a reporter for the National Journal, a Washington magazine that covers government and politics, takes a close look at the providers of supplemental services and related issues.

She notes that more than 1,000 tutoring providers have signed on to the program in various states. Ms. Gorman cites Department of Education data about tutors: Seventy percent were private—including 2 percent that were faith-based groups and 13 percent that were online providers; 24 percent were part of the public school system; 2 percent were affiliated with universities; and 4 percent could not be categorized.

The number of providers varied widely from state to state, she found. At the beginning of the current school year, for instance, Georgia had 150 and Florida had none. According to Ms. Gorman, there are still no firm figures on how many children are eligible for the law’s supplemental services.

“At this point, large corporate providers and school districts seem to be ruling the marketplace,” she says in the study. “Their shares are likely to increase as the program matures because both types of providers have the greatest ability to both scale up and scale back with market demands.”

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A version of this article appeared in the January 21, 2004 edition of Education Week as More Students Transfer Schools, But Total Is Small, Study Reports

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