'No Child Left Behind' Law Bumps Into Hard Reality
Ohanian Comment: A blast from the past. If a successful school doesn't have enough capacity to handle those kids who want transfers from failing schools, well the successful schools will just have to use a year-round calendar to expand capacity, according to a U.S. Dept. of Education expert. Get it? Year-round school is a handy tool for promoting No Child Left Behind policy. And if you don't like year-round schools, there are always charters.
Before the school year began, 30 parents in the Chester Upland School District believed that a federal law would allow them to transfer their children out of the troubled, low-achieving district into one with more resources and better test scores.
They were in for a letdown.
The law, No Child Left Behind, encourages - but does not require - districts with failing or persistently violent schools to develop partnerships with neighboring districts if they have no internal solutions.
Chester Upland sent letters to the 14 other districts in Delaware County in August, asking whether they would accept some students.
All 14 said no.
"They [the parents] got a rude awakening when we got the responses back," said Granville Lash, vice chairman of Chester Upland's Board of Control. "They didn't really understand... the other schools don't really have to accept our kids."
Norristown got a similar response. The Montgomery County district asked for transfer help from seven neighboring districts within a 10-mile radius and got seven rejections.
The 200,000-student Philadelphia School District, where more than half of the schools qualify as "needing improvement" under the federal law, made overtures - though not official requests - to some suburban school officials in June, and were told in summary: Forget about it.
In New Jersey, as of 10 days ago, no school district had entered into an agreement to use the interdistrict transfer provision under the law, according Mike Yaple, a spokesman for the New Jersey School Boards Association.
The Camden School District, which has all five of its middle schools on the "needing improvement" list and its two traditional high schools on the early-warning list, has not asked suburban schools to take students.
Transfers a 'hoax'
The law as it appears on paper could transform lives: Students from under-resourced schools in the Philadelphia area suddenly could find themselves in educationally advanced classrooms.
But the transfer aspect of No Child Left Behind is not working nationally, and that makes it nothing more than a "hoax," said Arnold Fege of the Washington-based Public Education Network. He said he hasn't heard of one case nationwide in which a high-performing district has welcomed children from low-performing ones.
"There's not much incentive for contiguous districts to take the children," he said. The voluntary nature of the current law "is probably not going to work without" extra money or a waiver from some test-score requirements for the receiving district.
Under the law, districts are required to offer transfers from schools where test scores have failed to improve for two consecutive years. The law also prescribes other sanctions and remedies, including free tutoring by outside providers and, in extreme cases, overhaul of the school staff.
Suburban school officials say the suggestion of interdistrict transfers is not only impractical, but also could ultimately hurt their children, educationally and financially.
Administrators in districts that rejected the transfer overtures cited specific concerns:
Many suburban schools are facing rapid enrollment growth and do not have space.
Accepting transfers would conflict with the goal to keep class sizes as small as possible.
The public is in opposition.
Solicitors advise against taking on transfers because of the cost.
"If you accept one 'type' of student you may have a hard time denying another 'type' - translated to mean, they do not want to take on special-needs kids who may end up costing $60,000 per year to educate," stated a letter to Paul Vallas, the Philadelphia district's chief executive officer. The letter was prepared by a Philadelphia education official who contacted suburban school officials on behalf of Vallas and summarized their concerns.
Michael Pladus, superintendent of the Interboro School District in Delaware County, has other worries.
"With much greater emphasis on standardized testing, I'm afraid that many school districts are less inclined to reach out to assist other school districts because of the competition that has been fostered in the name of accountability," he said.
Nicholas Ignatuk Jr., superintendent of Ridley School District, said that local taxpayers pay for the schools and that they alone are entitled to use them. The Delaware County district keeps class size as low as possible. The average size in early grades is 17. As a result, 85 percent of district students are reading at or above grade level by second grade, he said.
"Any program required under No Child Left Behind would certainly throw a curve to that situation and add problems to a program that is really working very well," he said.
Problems on both sides
Officials from Philadelphia and Norristown also were concerned about potential hurdles if the suburban districts said yes and accepted their students. The sending district would have to pay the tuition and probably the transportation costs, which could detract from their efforts to make their schools better.
"I am all for choice for parents," said Lisa Andrejko, Norristown superintendent, "if it were a choice, but not at our expense... . But I don't think you can have it that way."
But some parents and advocates for school choice say it should not be so easy for other districts to say no to their neighbors.
"I wish it were a requirement under the law," said Keisha Hegamin, president of Philadelphia's Black Alliance for Educational Options. "We get a lot of parents who just want to get their kids out of these failing schools."
Dan Langan, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education, defended No Child Left Behind and said there are no plans to change it. School districts, he said, also have other options, such as adding portable classrooms and going to a year-round calendar to expand capacity at successful schools, approving more charter schools, and providing tutoring services.
The reaction didn't surprise Todd Ziebarth of the Denver-based Education Commission of the States.
"That's a can of worms that apparently the department didn't want to open, just given the history of class and race issues that are so apparent between suburban and urban districts," he said.
Vicki Phillips, secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Education, also said she isn't inclined to institute a requirement or set firm guidelines on when students can be rejected.
"At this point, we are leaving it to local districts," she said.
She added that "the first and best solution" is to improve struggling schools and districts rather than foster an elaborate cross-district transfer scheme: "A parent's first and best choice ought to be a neighborhood school."
Lash, of Chester Upland, said he wished the suburban districts would help, but also said the district "has to stand up and be accountable" for its own problems.
Chester Upland, which has had lagging test scores for years, has been under state control. Its schools are being managed by the for-profit Edison Schools Inc. and this year, they began to show some test-score improvement.
Drewanda Kelley, president of the Parent Teacher Organization at Columbus School in Chester, said she plans to keep her child in the district and support the local schools.
But parents who want to transfer to suburban schools should be allowed, she said.
Andrejko, of Norristown, said she turned to neighboring districts only after exhausting all in-district options. Four of the six elementary schools had to offer transfers. The two remaining schools, which could receive students, took 43. Twenty requests were turned down because there was no more room. Yet there hasn't been an outcry from parents, she said.
She also defended the suburban districts that said no: "No one has been rude. No one has said we don't want your kids. They're just saying they have capacity issues."
Philadelphia found space within its district to offer transfers to more than 1,000 students, whose parents requested them.
Realizing that more interest in transfers could develop, CEO Vallas said he is exploring the possibility of partnerships with two Catholic high schools in the city - Cardinal Dougherty and Mercy Vocational High School - but is awaiting a legal opinion. The district also is building new high schools to create more choices in the city.
"At the end of the day, we need to improve our schools and we need to expand school choice options within the district," he said.
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES