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NCLB Outrages

Only a Small Percentage of Alabama Students Opt to Leave Under-Performing Schools

Ohanian Comment: This article is little more than a PR statement for NCLB and school choice.

Here's the url for the Commission's report. I want to know if they really said, as quoted below, NCLB fosters integration. So far I have not been able to open the file.


Of the 100 public schools in Mobile County, Mae Eanes Middle has long stood out as a place nagged by poverty, lagging student achievement and chronic discipline problems.

This year a relatively high number of Eanes parents have taken advantage of a landmark federal law to move their children to better-performing schools elsewhere in the county system. In all, 85 students out of roughly 900 transferred for the current school year, according to a state education department report.

No other school in Alabama logged more transfers, although one Huntsville elementary school also had 85.

Parents now have that option courtesy of the No Child Left Behind Act, a 2002 reform law that tightened oversight of local schools. Under the so-called "public school choice" provision, children can transfer out of schools deemed to be in need of improvement for having repeatedly fallen short of student achievement goals.

To Mae Eanes Principal Douglas July, who is completing his first school year in that post, the transfers "are just a choice that parents make" and don't necessarily reflect poorly on his school.

"They want to go to another school and give it a try," July said this week, adding that some students ended up returning to the school in the Maysville community. Eanes is one of five predominantly black, low-performing Mobile County schools in line for extra federal money this fall to pay for supplies, academic programs and bonuses to lure better-qualified teachers.

But in another study released earlier this week, the Citizens' Commission on Civil Rights, a Washington, D.C., watchdog group, found that the No Child Left Behind provision already is giving new opportunities to poor and minority children, as well as helping to foster racial integration in some school systems in Alabama and South Carolina.

"There is every reason to believe this will have a positive impact," commission Chairman William Taylor said at a news conference. Not only does public school choice give parents and children more options, he said, but teachers and administrators at failing schools also have an incentive to improve when students can "vote with their feet."

Based on piecemeal data from around the country, the commission conservatively concluded that almost 70,000 school children nationally made use of the choice option for the current 2003-2004 school year.

It also found barriers to greater participation. Among them: a reluctance of some school administrators to publicize the program and a lack of space in high-performing schools in some districts.

Alabama generally got good marks for compliance. In Mobile County, 240 students -- or about 5 percent of almost 4,700 who were eligible -- sought to transfer out of Eanes, Citronelle High and other low-performing schools, according to state numbers. Of those, 38 ultimately opted not to move after they could not find room in their "first-choice school," the state report says.

Statewide, the impact so far falls short of revolutionary. Only 3.7 percent of the 21,632 eligible students sought to use the choice option; some districts, such as Baldwin County, had no schools that fell in the "needing improvement" category.

Elsewhere, there were some noteworthy spikes. Of the school districts examined in the citizen's commission study, the Russell County system in east Alabama had the highest transfer rate in the country at about 28 percent of eligible students.

With a transfer rate of more than 15 percent, the Washington County school system also placed high. State statistics show that all of that system's 63 transfers left McIntosh High School.

Neither Washington County School Superintendent Tillman Parnell nor McIntosh High Principal David Davis could be reached for comment.

In Mobile County, newly elected PTA President Angie Hannah said Thursday that she is not familiar enough with the public school choice issue to comment. Efforts to reach other local PTA leaders, including the current president of the Mae Eanes association, were unsuccessful.

Broadly speaking, however, state and local school officials were ambivalent about the effects of school choice.

Transfer students have "fit in very well" at their new schools, said Mobile County Superintendent Harold Dodge.

"I have been very pleased with how the schools and student bodies alike accept those children," Dodge said. The federal government also has provided enough money to cover the added cost of busing students on what may be one-way rides as long as 40 minutes, Dodge said.

For the future, however, he said he doesn't expect a sizable increase in the percentage of students seeking to leave their usual schools. For one thing, Dodge said he believes the infusion of extra help for low-performing schools will make a difference. For another, the Mobile area still has "a strong sense of community" that tends to keep students close to home, he said.

While upbeat about the public school choice program, Dodge also said he sees the potential for a "mind drain" where "a lot of really interested parents will elect to transfer (their children) so the student body gets weaker and weaker."

Public school choice is part of a broader movement to provide parents with more options for their children's education, said Kathy Christie, a vice president at the Education Commission of the States, a Colorado-based research group. Many states now allow the creation of customized charter schools, for example, while others let students transfer across district lines.

Although most research indicates that such "choice programs" don't make a big difference in student achievement, Christie said, those studies do show "a fairly significant increase in satisfaction."

"You have the ability to attend the school that might fit your needs," she said.

Politically, public school choice could also slow the momentum for controversial voucher programs that provide taxpayer support for private schools, William Taylor said.

Concerned parents "may discover that within the public school system there are ways to advance the education of their own children," Taylor said, "and vouchers may have less of an appeal."

— Sean Reilly, Washington Bureau
Mobile Register


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