The Portland, Ore., school system is far outpacing most urban districts in eligible students transferring to higher-rated public schools under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. And Paul A. Cook is not 100 percent comfortable with that.
The principal of Cleveland High School says the roughly 30 NCLB transfers that his 1,400-student school has attracted over the past two school years have not been a problem. It’s just that the last thing he wants is to harm struggling schools in Portland or poach on his fellow principals’ turf.
“That’s my biggest concern,” Mr. Cook said. “I want to support the rest of the schools as well as the intent of the NCLB.”
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Feelings such as Mr. Cook’s are shared widely among administrators as they seek to carry out the school choice provision of the 3-year-old federal law. And that ambivalence is just one of a host of challenges facing a policy that many experts agree is not playing out according to the script written for it in Washington.
Exceptions such as Portland aside, a slim slice of the millions of eligible students nationally appear to be actually switching schools under the choice policy. (“NCLB Choice Option Going Untapped, But Tutoring Picking Up,” March 16, 2005.)
That low participation rate—hovering around an estimated average of 1 percent—has spurred debate across the ideological spectrum about whether the provision is working as intended. At stake is a healthy chunk of the federal government’s biggest K-12 education program, Title I, which this fiscal year is dispensing $12.7 billion to schools nationwide to help disadvantaged students.
Even though most analysts do not expect changes in the No Child Left Behind law before it comes up for reauthorization in 2007, competing proposals for fixing the choice policy are proliferating as its implementation continues to stumble over everything from state testing schedules to a lack of room in higher-rated schools.
Advocates of the policy are calling for providing schools with incentives to accept transfers and for giving parents more time, information, and options, among other changes. States need to hold districts’ feet to the fire, those proponents argue, and the federal government needs to lean harder on states and collect better data.
Skeptics about the provision argue that offering transfers should be only one of several options for underperforming schools, and certainly not the first sanction schools face. They also say that transfers should be restricted to certain students, and that Washington needs to send districts more money to carry out the policy.
Amid this jockeying for position, “there’s a consensus that not a very high percentage of eligible students are taking advantage of the school choice provision,” noted Ross Wiener, the policy director of the Education Trust, a Washington-based research and advocacy organization that supports the federal law. “Where there’s not a lot of agreement is whether that’s because of a lack of interest or a lack of real options.”
The transfer requirement is the first of a string of consequences that the law imposes on schools that receive Title I money and repeatedly fail to make adequate yearly progress, or AYP, the key measure of success under the law.
If schools miss that academic-accountability target for two years in a row, districts are supposed to give all students in those schools the option of transferring to another public school that has made such progress, with transportation provided.
In the third year of not making AYP, schools also are required to offer students such supplemental educational services as tutoring. So far, many more students have gotten those services than have transferred, fueling a sense that school choice is not where the action is under the NCLB law.
Yet even those with little love for the choice policy say that debate over its future is by no means irrelevant.
“It’s definitely important, because the law picks this as the first, overarching thing that has to happen,” said Joel Packer, a lobbyist for the 2.7 million-member National Education Association, which is critical of the choice policy and the broader law. “This is the first mandated consequence.”
Problems with carrying out the choice policy have been widely reported since the first schools started offering transfers in 2002. In January of that year, President Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act; the choice policy kicked in for the following school year.
Since then, many analysts have zeroed in on the limited transfer options that many districts are offering. Particularly in cities with lots of schools not making AYP, space in schools that do make the grade can be scarce. That has often led districts to sharply limit transfers—sometimes in open disregard of the federal law.
Another issue has been the timing of parental notification, both of their children’s eligibility to transfer and of the specific options available. Because AYP determinations often are not made until summer or fall, districts have struggled, sometimes unsuccessfully, to meet the law’s requirement that parents be notified about transfer opportunities before the start of the school year. Many analysts see that deadline as too late anyway.
“For parents to be notified in September or October, only the most desperate would make the switch,” said Paul T. Hill, a professor of public-affairs research at the University of Washington in Seattle and a school choice expert.
Capacity also has been a challenge in small and rural districts.
“They have a great deal of difficulty because there simply aren’t nearby schools,” said education consultant Caitlin Scott, referring to rural districts. She wrote a chapter on the choice policy for the Washington-based Center on Education Policy’s third annual report on implementing the federal law, which was released last month.
Because of capacity limits and other problems, “choice really shouldn’t be the focus for improving student achievement, because it isn’t touching that many kids,” she argued. “Some of the other aspects of NCLB, such as using data-based decisionmaking and aligning instruction with standards and using supplemental services, may be more promising.”
Making It Work
Yet backers of the choice policy call such judgments premature.
“The solution in the long term is for districts to create additional capacity … to meet the appropriate parental demand for more good options for kids,” said Michael J. Petrilli, the associate assistant deputy secretary in the U.S. Department of Education’s office of innovation and improvement. “That doesn’t happen overnight.”
Mr. Petrilli added that one way to address the capacity crunch would be to revive the idea of allowing private schools to take part in the transfer program, especially given the many recent closures of Roman Catholic schools. Congress debated but dropped that idea as it crafted the No Child Left Behind law.
“The same people who are saying capacity problems mean that we can’t do school choice are the same people who argued against including private schools in No Child Left Behind,” he said.
Meanwhile, some districts have bucked the trend and offered plentiful transfer options. In Oregon’s Portland district, 1,000 students completed NCLB transfers this school year, 17 percent of those eligible.
Educators there say the 48,000-student district was primed because of a long tradition of intradistrict choice, including themed programs open to students citywide and a liberal transfer policy. At Mr. Cook’s school, for instance, students outside the neighborhood have long been drawn to its programs focusing on the International Baccalaureate and business management.
“That commitment to choice has been part of the district’s strategy for a long time,” said Vicki L. Phillips, a former state schools chief in Pennsylvania who took over as the superintendent in Portland last August. “We can more easily adapt to those provisions of NCLB than is the case in other districts.”
Still, Ms. Phillips says policymakers should not ignore the troubles other places are reporting with the choice policy, “if the provision is to both survive and offer real benefits.”
“It’s not just negative pushback, in the main; it’s real, practical issues of implementation, and those issues need to get recognized, honored, talked about, and adjusted for,” she argued.
What Ms. Phillips calls negative pushback comes up often in the debate over the choice policy. With studies finding spotty awareness among parents about the status of their children’s schools under the federal law, many advocates accuse districts of doing a poor job of informing families and giving them attractive options.
Indeed, a lack of effective parental outreach is the federal Education Department’s “biggest concern,” Mr. Petrilli said.
“That is very troubling to us, that there are still many school districts that have not gotten the word out to parents about their options under the law,” he said.
Terri Schwartzbeck, a policy analyst for the Arlington, Va.-based American Association of School Administrators, concedes that many superintendents are not keen on promoting the choice policy. But she says that’s based on judgments about how best to target resources.
“If they saw solid evidence that moving a child to a different school was actually going to improve their achievement, I think they would feel a lot more confident in the program,” she said, “but that evidence isn’t really there.”
Despite its political differences with the Bush administration, the Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights, a Washington-based watchdog group that strongly supports the choice policy, agrees that many educators aren’t doing enough to make it work.
“District buy-in and teacher and principal buy-in is critical, and places where they haven’t bought in and bought in with enthusiasm, we see fewer children transferring,” said Dianne M. Piché, the group’s executive director.
A longtime advocate of school desegregation, the Citizens’ Commission has proposed a range of policy changes at the district, state, and federal levels to bolster the choice provision, including funding from the Education Department for demonstration programs that help students enroll in schools outside their districts.
Some of the group’s recommendations overlap with those of Washington-based policy experts Frederick M. Hess and Chester E. Finn Jr. in Leaving No Child Behind?: Options for Kids in Failing Schools,, a book published by Palgrave Macmillan last year. Mr. Hess is the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, and Mr. Finn is the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.
Among many changes, they call for addressing the timing problems that result in families’ getting such short notice about transfer opportunities. Turning around state-testing results faster is one approach, they say, while another is allowing a year’s lag between when schools are labeled and when they offer transfers.
They also call for easing the potential penalties for schools that accept transfers. One option they suggest is to exempt the scores of such students from a school’s accountability equation for a couple of years. Offering state-aid bonuses to receiving schools is another idea they toss out.
Meanwhile, Scott Young, a senior education policy specialist for the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures, argues that if a school is flagged because of the test scores of certain subgroups of students—such as those with disabilities or from racial or ethnic minorities—there is no reason that all students in a school should be allowed to leave.
“The subgroup that causes a school to miss AYP should be given the first priority, and then all low-achieving students,” he said.
Mr. Packer of the NEA agrees with that idea. He also says that the order of the sanctions schools face should be reversed, so that they offer supplemental services first and then school choice.
“There’s pretty broad agreement now that order doesn’t make sense,” Mr. Packer said, noting that other groups have called for such a change.
The federal government also should create a separate pot of money to pay for the choice provision, Mr. Packer argued. Currently, the law requires districts to set aside 20 percent of their Title I allotments for school choice or supplemental services, with a minimum of 5 percent reserved for each program.
Amid all the policy proposals, Mr. Wiener of the Education Trust cautions that the relatively low number of NCLB transfers should not necessarily be read as a sign that the policy is failing.
“A little bit of this is about trying to affect the relationship between parents and their local schools,” he said. “One of the desired effects might be that schools are more responsive to the parents, so that the parents decide to stay.”