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LEAVING MANY CHILDREN BEHIND

Question: When the public school system fox is placed in charge of the school choice henhouse, what happens?

Answer: Not much choice.

When Congress passed the "No Child Left Behind Act" last year, it said that any child trapped in a federally aided public school that has failed for two straight years to make adequate progress toward its state's academic standards has a right to attend another public (or charter) school located within the same district.

This is a bobtail version of President Bush's original proposal, which included private schools and public schools in other districts. But Congress balked at "vouchers." Then the education establishment pressed lawmakers to confine kids' options to schools in their present districts. Hence Los Angeles children have no right to enroll in the fine schools of Beverly Hills.

This halfhearted choice provision was supposed to take immediate effect for pupils in more than 8,000 schools that have already lingered for two years or more on their states' lists of education failures. School districts across America were flabbergasted to learn this past summer that they were expected to provide options for those millions of youngsters in 2002-3.

How did they respond? A handful behaved as they should. But many more balked and resisted, dawdling until it grew too late for kids to switch, ignoring the law entirely or reinterpreting it in ways that suited them.

In a matter of weeks, Ohio whittled its list of failing Title I schools from 760 to 212 -- not by improving the others but by fiddling with test scores and standards. Rural South Carolina districts claimed that they have so few schools that there is really nothing to choose among. Kentucky chose to wait until mid-September to finalize its list of eligible schools, aware that once the school year was under way, fewer families would want to move their children.

Besides foot-dragging, some communities faced genuine problems of capacity. In Baltimore, where 30,000 children are enrolled in failing schools, the district said it had just 200 openings in better ones. In Chicago, a staggering 125,000 kids in 179 schools were originally deemed eligible to transfer, but the system somehow cut that list to 50 schools and then opted to "pair" these with other schools rather than giving kids a full range of options.

Despite such shenanigans, some youngsters changed schools. Denver estimated that as many as 5,000 pupils did so. When all is said and done, however, it was a few thousand poor children, not millions, who were able to escape bad schools for better ones. The big story is the widespread flouting of the new law's intent -- and a federal government that can do little to make recalcitrant states and districts mend their ways.

What we are really seeing, once again, is how the public education establishment despises school choice, how little it will bestir itself to assist poor families trapped in failing schools in gaining access to better ones, and how the hardball tactics it deploys keep lawmakers from adding more exit doors.

CHESTER E. FINN JR. is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution (www.hoover.org) in Stanford, Calif., and a member of the Koret Task Force on K-12 Education.

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