The No Child Left Behind Act has taken its lumps from the education establishment, which loathes its testing and transparency measures. But the latest criticism of the law is more surprising, because it's coming from conservatives who are questioning the Bush Administration's commitment to enforcing its own law.
This week the Alliance for School Choice filed complaints against school districts in Los Angeles and Compton, California, where school officials have neglected to notify parents of their rights under NCLB. These districts have also failed to make transfer options available to kids in underperforming schools.
Under the 2001 law, schools that repeatedly fail to make "adequate yearly progress" as measured by state standards are required to give students the option to attend better schools within the district. To be sure, the California districts singled out in the filing aren't the only ones skirting the law. Similar violations have been reported in Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit, New York and elsewhere. A Government Accountability Office report from 2004 found that some three million children in 5,300 schools nationwide were eligible for choice under NCLB, but only about 1% were exercising the option.
Still, Los Angeles and Compton are among the worst cases of noncompliance, according to the Alliance, which filed the administrative actions with the school districts on behalf of several parents with children stuck in failing schools. In the 2003-04 school year less than two-tenths of one percent of eligible students in the Los Angeles Unified School District exercised their rights and actually transferred schools. In Compton, no students have received transfers.
"That only two out of every thousand families with children in failing schools would seek a better school for their children," says the complaint, "betrays the utter inadequacy of [the L.A. school district's] notification and explanation regarding school choice rights."
The complaint further alleges that these pitifully low transfer numbers are by design. While NCLB specifies when and how parents must be notified of their options, the school districts have deliberately dragged their feet and gone out of their way to confuse and discourage families. Tactics include, among other things, burying transfer notices in other material sent to homes; giving parents a very narrow time-frame -- say, a week -- in which to make up their mind; and forcing transfers to take place in the middle of a school year. This kind of obstructionism fits the pattern of public school officials around the country who are resisting every challenge to their control of school enrollments, curriculum and especially budgets.
The reason school districts have been able to get away with this behavior is that no one is holding their feet to the fire. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings has chosen to hand out exemptions or look the other way instead of enforcing the law. This benign neglect hurts most the very students that NCLB was designed to help. The GAO report found that 80% of children in failing schools were minority and 62% were low-income.
If the districts reject the Alliance complaints, they can be appealed to the state and then federal government. But Secretary Spellings needn't wait for that process and could take action against these recalcitrant districts and impose sanctions if necessary. Under the law, she has the authority to terminate federal funding and compel compliance but so far has been unwilling to use it.
Large urban school districts like the one in Los Angeles respond that the number of students eligible for transfer far exceeds the number of seats available in better schools within the district. But that's not an excuse for noncompliance; that's a reason to let students attend schools outside their public district, including charter schools and private schools.
School districts have little incentive to initiate these reforms on their own, especially when federal enforcement is an empty threat. And if the Bush Administration isn't going to use its funding leverage to ensure that all children have a shot at a decent education, then No Child Left Behind has become yet another illusory reform.
Wall Street Journal
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES