School Choice, Limited Options
School Choice, Limited Options
Local Realities Confront No Child Left Behind Law
By Michael Dobbs
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 22, 2003; Page A01
WELDON, N.C. -- Nelson Edwards is unhappy with the education his daughters are receiving at Weldon Middle School, which has failed to meet federal standards. But help should be on the way: The No Child Left Behind law gives the Winn-Dixie meat cutter the option of transferring his children to a better-performing school.
At least, that is the theory of one part of the most sweeping educational reforms adopted by Congress in more than a generation. The practice, from the perspective of a poor, overwhelmingly African American school district in North Carolina, is rather different.
A few months ago, Weldon school officials attempted to negotiate a school-choice agreement with their counterparts in Roanoke Rapids, a predominantly white, middle-class school district on the other side of Interstate 95. They were turned down flat.
Weldon's request would "create an administrative nightmare," said Roanoke Rapids school Superintendent John Parker, who employs two investigators to ensure that children living in Weldon and surrounding Halifax County do not try to sneak into his schools. "There is no way we could accommodate all the students who want to come here, if we opened our doors."
The experience in Weldon suggests the depth of entrenched local opposition to school choice, as the Bush administration refers to its plan for offering parents an alternative to failing schools. It also illustrates the formidable practical difficulties in implementing the concept, particularly in small school districts.
Although the obstacles to school choice may be greater in Weldon than elsewhere, the number of students changing schools under the No Child Left Behind law is minuscule nationwide. In rural areas, it is often difficult for parents to find more acceptable schools without traveling great distances. Even in urban areas, good schools are often crowded and reluctant to accept students from "failing" schools.
According to Bill McGrady, who supervises school-choice programs for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, fewer than 50 students in the state transferred last year as a result of No Child Left Behind. Figures for this year are not yet available, but are not expected to be dramatically higher.
In neighboring Virginia, 432 students out of a student population of 1.2 million took advantage of the federal school-choice provision this year, up from 226 last year, according to state officials.
Federal officials were unable to provide figures for the numbers of transfers nationwide under the school-choice provisions of No Child Left Behind, now in their second year in many jurisdictions.
Some Weldon residents question whether the fierce opposition of the Roanoke Rapids school board to accepting Weldon students has more to do with race than administrative convenience. According to retired Weldon teacher Helen Brown, the very existence of two small school districts next door to each other is a legacy of decades of segregation. She says that the predominantly white schools in Roanoke Rapids have no interest in admitting large numbers of poor, black students.
"It's a bit too late for No Child Left Behind," Brown said of the 1,000 or so students on the Weldon side of the line. "These kids have already been left behind."
A once-thriving railroad town that has fallen on hard times, Weldon is typical of the kind of neglected school district targeted by No Child Left Behind. Passed in 2001 by large bipartisan majorities in both houses of Congress, the law is meant to ensure that public school children reach grade-level math and reading standards by 2014. The idea behind the legislation is to hold schools, teachers and administrators accountable for their performance.
Less than five miles apart, Weldon and Roanoke Rapids belong to two different worlds. Property values on the "white" side of the highway are 50 percent higher than on the "black" side. Although Roanoke Rapids is hardly a hub of economic dynamism -- the textile mill dismissed its last 320 workers earlier this year -- it is an oasis of prosperity compared with Weldon, where men hang around on porches with nothing to do and the major employer is the school system.
Historically, Roanoke Rapids had the reputation of being a paternalistic textile town, the scene of an epic struggle to create a union immortalized by the movie "Norma Rae." Apart from the railroad, Weldon was known for its Tara-like southern mansions and country club. Until the 1950s, there was a sizable white population in Weldon, which sent its children to segregated public schools. The white elite, which included cotton farmers, did everything it could to keep industry out of Weldon.
The social and ethnic mix of the two towns changed drastically with the desegregation of the school system, decreed in a series of Supreme Court rulings beginning with the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954.
Brown, the retired teacher, said, "Once the Weldon school system became integrated, the whites lost interest and pulled out." Weldon's transformation into a virtually all-black town was complete by the early '70s.
Last year, Weldon's school board called Brown out of retirement at age 73 to help out at the elementary school because of a chronic shortage of qualified teachers. She was shocked by what she found. Of 19 children in her class, two came from two-parent families. Teacher turnover was so high that many students were taught by substitutes. Over a dozen years, the school had gone through nine principals.
To meet state and federal standards, Weldon's school board has embraced a strategy of relentless testing and practicing for tests. Every week, students are required to take practice tests for as long as three hours, leading up to the mandatory state tests in the spring. Some teachers say the emphasis on testing is compounding an already serious problem of high teacher turnover.
"It was all drill, drill, drill for the test," said Lana Curtis, a sixth-grade teacher at a Roanoke Rapids middle school, who transferred from Weldon a couple of years ago. "I did not feel that I was being treated as a professional. Pretty much everything we taught was related to the test."
Despite the arrival of three "technical assistance teams" from Raleigh to help train teachers, Weldon schools have continued to do poorly on state tests and lag behind Roanoke Rapids in the number of students performing at grade level. Under the No Child Left Behind law, schools that qualify for federal funds because they cater to a high proportion of poor students are required to offer school choice if they fail to meet annual yearly progress targets for two years in a row. Some school districts have come under attack from conservative educational experts for not doing enough to meet the requirements of No Child Left Behind and failing to notify parents of their rights under the law. Undersecretary of Education Eugene W. Hickok said some cities were abiding by the law "begrudgingly at best," and posting information about alternative schools late or only for brief periods.
The obstacles to providing school choice are likely to grow significantly next year as more schools fail to meet the goals of No Child Left Behind for the second successive year. North Carolina officials project that as many as 488 schools in the state could be required to offer school choice, up from 36 this year. In many districts, there will be no alternative to the "low-performing schools."
Federal officials say that when school choice is impractical, school districts will be encouraged to offer alternative solutions. According to Hickok, such alternatives could include the provision of tutoring services to underprivileged students, charter schools, cyberschools and schools within schools. He said the law was intended to encourage parents to push for greater opportunities for their children.
If schools in Roanoke Rapids are reluctant to make room for students from Weldon, schools in Weldon are equally unhappy about the prospect of giving up students to Roanoke Rapids. The school system stands to lose about $5,000 in federal and state funds for every student who transfers out of the school district, making it even more difficult to meet the goals of No Child Left Behind.
"We believe in our kids and want to keep them here," said Kathi Gibson, Weldon's third school superintendent in four years. A much bigger problem, from her point of view, is the lack of qualified teachers. "We are having to constantly fill up the pool of teachers, and we are unable to pay the bonuses we need to pay to attract good people. We are forever playing catch-up," she said.
Edwards, the Weldon meat cutter unhappy with the education his children are receiving, says he does not want to send them to a school system he perceives as "unwelcoming." Rather than push for school choice, he is looking for ways to ensure they can receive a quality education in Weldon. Elections for a new school board are scheduled for next year, and he is thinking of running.
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES