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NCLB Outrages

Spellings Exemptions

Ohanian Comment: I am anarchistic enough to agree with the editorialists at the Wall Street Journal. Just let NCLB expire. Don't fix it; kill it. Kill it and give our children back their childhood.

Of course my reasons are different from theirs.


Here's a question for Education Secretary Margaret Spellings: Why won't you enforce the school choice provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act?

Under NCLB, children in failing school districts are entitled to free after-school tutoring from state-approved private providers. The failing districts themselves are not permitted to offer their own tutoring programs, which makes sense for at least two reasons.

First, why should a district receive federal funds for after-school tutoring to serve the same students it is failing to teach during regular hours? And second, a district that can offer its own tutoring service has a disincentive to inform parents of other options, which undermines the whole point of allowing the private sector a role in helping these children learn. This logic seems to have escaped Ms. Spellings, who has granted several waivers to underperforming districts and allowed them to offer their own tutoring at the expense of private providers. What's worse, she won't even enforce the conditions of her waiver.

For example, the Education Department has granted a waiver to Chicago's public schools, even though that system has been identified repeatedly as "in need of improvement" under NCLB and therefore not allowed to provide after-school tutoring. There is no shortage of private providers -- from Newton Learning to Sylvan to the Princeton Review -- willing to step in and serve the 200,000 or so students in the Windy City eligible for free tutoring.

But under pressure from teachers unions and public education bureaucrats like the Council of the Great City Schools, Ms. Spellings is allowing the Chicago system to offer its own tutoring. And with predictable results. After assuring the secretary that it would not limit student access to private tutoring, Chicago is doing exactly that. Principals have been directed to give preference to the district's service and limit parent and student access to alternatives. Teachers have handed out registration forms for the district's tutoring program at events where outside providers were banned. A full third of all students enrolled in tutoring are enrolled in the public district's program.

This pattern shows up in other cities where Ms. Spellings has rewarded underperforming school districts with more time, money and access to their most vulnerable students. School districts in Boston and Tampa, Florida, also have used administrative hurdles to make it very difficult for private and faith-based tutoring programs to reach students.

Ideally, school districts and tutoring services would work together in the interest of the child and the spirit of the law. The districts would make available to providers a list of eligible students and then ensure that parents know about all of their options. But in practice, and with Secretary Spellings's tacit approval, something closer to the opposite is happening.

Districts aren't sharing their lists of eligible students. Private providers are denied access to facilities and enrollment forms that the districts are supposed to make available. And when the districts do bother to set up information fairs for private providers, they're often held at inconvenient times or places that guarantee poor attendance. The results are predictable. Last year in Boston, only 3,600 out of 19,000 eligible students received tutoring, and 73% wound up being tutored by the failing district instead of the 19 other providers available to them.

Ms. Spellings is no doubt trying to be flexible, and an Education Department spokesman described the exemptions to us as "flexibility agreements." The secretary's office also said that it's aware (anecdotally) of suspect district behavior and plans to address it when the programs are reviewed at the end of this year. We hope so. There's a difference between being "flexible" and letting a public school district take you for a ride.

Along with NCLB's annual testing requirements, these choice provisions are what most recommend the law. Without them, NCLB is little more than another huge and unwarranted increase in federal education spending. The No Child Left Behind Act is up for reauthorization next year; if Ms. Spellings won't enforce its provisions, Congress should let the whole thing expire.

— Editorial
Wall Street Journal


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