More than 1 million students in the nation’s largest urban school districts have remained at poor-performing campuses despite a federal law that allows them a chance to escape to better schools.
The offer extended by the No Child Left Behind education law is intended to expand school choices for children in low-income communities.
But in Los Angeles, only 215 students switched to better campuses last year out of nearly 204,000 who were eligible.
In Chicago, 1,097 students out of 270,000 transferred.
And in New York, 6,828 out of 230,000 students moved to other campuses.
A lack of interest on the part of parents and a shortage of available seats in good schools have combined to weaken the impact of the law. Still, the Bush administration argues that its signature domestic policy strengthens local campuses by introducing competitive marketplace forces into public school districts.
Administration officials also say they judge the success of the law by whether schools improve, not by the numbers of transfers.
“This is a real culture shift,” said Eugene Hickok, deputy secretary in the U.S. Department of Education. “For years, the system did what was best for the system. Now we are arguing that [schools] have to find ways to respond to the needs of their customers. That’s what choice is about.”
The Bush administration is expected to expand the reforms of No Child Left Behind as the president enters his second term, possibly extending the law’s testing requirements from elementary and middle schools into high schools.
That could increase the number of failing campuses -- and thus the pool of students eligible for transfers -- as more schools struggle to meet the measure’s demanding expectations.
Critics say the low numbers of students taking advantage of the offer, however, reveal a significant flaw in the law: Policymakers misunderstand the importance of neighborhood schools to parents.
“The law does give real power to parents. It’s just not a power they are willing to use very often,” said Tom Loveless, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “The choice provision of the law is not ... going to revolutionize schools.”
Even if children leave their local campuses, some district leaders say they cannot accommodate more transfers because their best campuses already are strapped for space.
And school districts must use valuable federal funds to bus students to schools of their choice, siphoning money away from low-performing campuses.
“In Los Angeles, you’re going to move from one overcrowded school to another overcrowded school. I don’t think that is much of a solution,” said Los Angeles schools Supt. Roy Romer, who believes the law unfairly labels schools as failures.
Some districts have set limits on the numbers of transfers for fear of swamping high-performing campuses.
New York City schools, for example, are not offering high school students the opportunity to transfer this year through No Child Left Behind, saying the city’s high school admissions process already allows choices.
And in Chicago, officials have reserved just 438 seats for transfers this year even though 8,000 students have asked to move.
Last year, the district set aside 1,097 seats for 18,000 students who expressed interested.
The district holds a lottery for the available transfer slots.
Chicago officials said an Illinois law barred them from crowding schools to satisfy the requirements of No Child Left Behind.
“I’m not going to put 40 kids in a classroom,” said Arne Duncan, Chicago Public Schools’ chief executive. “I’m not going to change the fundamental nature of what has made a school successful.”
Schools are labeled failures under the federal law if they do not meet strict targets for improving test scores each year; campuses earn no credit for partial gains.
Schools in low-income communities that fail to meet their targets two years in a row are required to offer transfers to their students.
Many districts reluctantly notify parents of their right to better schools as required by No Child Left Behind, even as they promote the benefits of campuses on the federal watch list.
In the Anaheim City School District, officials encourage parents to consider more than just test scores when deciding whether to switch schools.
“When parents call, we explain that the programs and the training for teachers is the same at every school,” said Ruben Barron, Anaheim’s deputy superintendent.
“It is not about dissuading them -- they have a right to transfer if they want -- but it is about making an informed decision. We do tell them what their school is doing right,” he said.
Last year, 4,439 students at five Anaheim district schools were eligible for transfers. Only three moved to new campuses, the district reported.
None of the 600 students at Abraham Lincoln Elementary transferred last year.
Principal Victoria Knaack interpreted the lack of interest in switching schools as a vote of confidence even as her campus struggled to meet expectations of No Child Left Behind.
“When they don’t move, it means we’re doing something right,” she said. “It’s an affirmation for us.”
Parents say Lincoln is a good school filled with dedicated teachers. They say the campus, in the middle of a working-class Latino neighborhood, is an integral part of the community.
Lincoln offers an array of parenting and computer classes in the evenings. Nearly 100 parents attended one recent class.
“It wouldn’t matter if they told me another school was 100 times better, it wouldn’t do as much for [my son] as he gets here,” Angela Vela, whose first-grader attends Lincoln, said in Spanish. “It doesn’t matter how good the school is if the child isn’t motivated and the parents aren’t involved.”
Federal education officials say more parents don’t take advantage of the option to move because they aren’t notified until after the start of the school year.
Leaders in several school districts acknowledged the problem but said it was not their fault. State education departments, they said, release the lists of failing campuses only days or weeks before school starts, leaving districts little time to inform parents.
The Los Angeles Unified School District notifies parents twice a year: around the time school starts in the fall and again in December.
But parents cite reasons other than timing in their decisions to have their children stay put. They say federal policymakers fail to appreciate the social and communal roles that schools play in low-income and immigrant neighborhoods. At many campuses, parents get a chance to serve on school committees and take evening classes.
“Here, we are family,” said Rosa Villafana, 47, who turned down the chance for her daughter to transfer out of Loreto Street Elementary in the Cypress Park neighborhood of northeast Los Angeles.
“The state and the federal government don’t see the sentimental value of a school,” Villafana added. “If I thought my child was failing, I would change. But I’m happy.”
Loreto Street is one of 178 campuses in the Los Angeles Unified School District considered to be low-achieving under the law. More than 400 students have asked for -- and received -- transfers from those schools since the start of the 2003-04 school year.
Daniel and Dinora Sanchez jumped at the chance to move their 9-year-old son, Christian, to a better school outside their east San Fernando Valley neighborhood.
Christian now attends Germain Street Elementary in the northwest Valley community of Chatsworth.
The Sanchez family liked the idea of Christian attending a diverse school with more high-achieving students, something they didn’t feel he had at their local school, San Fernando Elementary. That campus, where 99% of the students are Latino, rates a 2 on the state’s school rankings, which go from 1 to 10. Germain rates a 9.
“I wanted him to interact with different types of students,” said Dinora Sanchez, who teaches second grade in Canoga Park. “I always felt that if you surround yourself with kids who are doing better, your expectations go up.”
Christian said he was sad to leave his old school but now feels more challenged.
“I kind of felt like I was the smartest kid in the class” at San Fernando, he said. “There are a lot of smart kids in my grade [at Germain]. I like my new school a lot.”
The Los Angeles district must use some of its federal poverty funds to pay for the boy’s transportation to his new school, as required by No Child Left Behind.
Like L.A. Unified, districts elsewhere must devote up to 20% of their federal poverty funds to pay for transfers and after-school tutoring at campuses identified as failing. Although district leaders see value in the tutoring, they object to the added costs of the transfers.
The Clark County School District in Las Vegas had to use some of its federal money last year to pay for 205 students to switch schools, out of 12,000 who were eligible.
Leaders in Clark County, which has the nation’s sixth-largest school system with more than 280,000 students, say the numbers of transfers could increase if more parents become aware of the option and additional schools land on the federal failure list.
“It’s money spent for the wrong purpose,” said Agustin Orci, deputy superintendent of the Clark County system. “I’d rather put that money into classrooms than buses.”
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The chart below shows the numbers of poor children who were eligible to transfer from low-performing schools to better campuses -- and the numbers of students who actually moved -- in 2003-04 school year under the No Child Left Behind education law.
*--* # of students # of students School districts eligible to transfer who transferred New York City 230,000 6,828 Los Angeles Unified 203,684 215 Chicago Public Schools 270,000 1,097 Dade County (Miami) 7,000 321 Broward County (Fort 60,000 869 Lauderdale) Clark County (Las Vegas) 12,000 205 Houston Independent 226 0 Philadelphia 142,025 135 Hawaii (The state has one 55,000 157 district.) Hillsborough County (Tampa) 45,000 450
Sources: The school districts. Graphics reporting by Duke Helfand and Joel Rubin, Los Angeles Times