The U.S. Department of Education has ordered the Birmingham, Ala., school district to allow students from a dozen low-performing middle schools to transfer to other schools under the No Child Left Behind Act.
Letters from the 34,000-student school district were to have gone out in late December notifying parents of more than 5,000 students that they could choose an alternative public school for the second semester. Those letters came in response to a Dec. 13 order from the federal education agency.
William L. Taylor, the chairman of the Washington-based Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights, a private watchdog group that is tracking implementation of the NCLB school transfer provisions, said he was not aware of any other instances in which the federal government has ordered a specific district to offer choice.
The order came after Citizens for Better Schools, a Birmingham-based advocacy group, challenged the district over its compliance with the school choice provision of the 4-year-old federal law. “The regulations are very clear, at least as far as we are concerned,” said Ronald E. Jackson, the executive project director for the group.
“Laws are not self-executing, and No Child Left Behind will not work until parents and public-advocacy groups … make sure that local school boards, no matter how much they disagree with the law, comply with it and try to make it work,” he added.
Officials from the Birmingham district could not be reached for comment last week.
Tutoring Offered Instead
Under the federal law, if a school that receives federal Title I anti-poverty funding does not make adequate yearly progress in student performance for two or more consecutive years, it is considered “in need of improvement.” At that point, the district is required to offer families the option of sending their children to a school not in that category. After a third year of failing to make AYP, schools must offer students access to free tutoring, known under the law as supplemental educational services.
A statement by the Birmingham school board said district officials thought they were complying with the law by offering tutoring to students in affected schools.
“District administrators believed No Child Left Behind allowed the district to make that offer instead of the transfer option,” according to a board statement quoted by The Birmingham News.
Mr. Jackson said the district maintained that it didn’t have space to accommodate the students in other schools. Most middle schools in the district have been labeled as needing improvement.
Maggie Rivers, who heads federal programs at the Alabama Department of Education, said a main concern of the district was that even those schools that were not technically subject to the federal law’s sanctions were low-performing.
State Request Rejected
The state itself had asked the federal government whether the district might wait until next school year, given that it believes the remaining schools may not make AYP, but the U.S. Education Department rejected the request.
In August, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings agreed to a pilot program allowing four districts in Virginia to effectively reverse the order of the NCLB sanctions and offer tutoring in the second year and transfers in the third.
The move marked the first time the federal department used its power to waive provisions of the statute itself rather than simply grant regulatory flexibility in how the law is carried out. (“NCLB Waiver Lets Virginia Offer Tutoring Before Choice,” Sept. 7, 2005.)