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Few Eligible Students Accept Offer to Switch Schools

A tiny fraction of eligible students has chosen to transfer out of neighborhood schools under new federal rules, the Miami-Dade district said last week.

Only 379 students registered to take advantage of the No Child Left Behind regulations that permit students to shift from schools that fall short of federal standards in two consecutive years.

Slightly more could enroll in Florida's taxpayer-funded voucher program to attend private schools.

The federal rules apply only to high-poverty schools that receive federal funds -- the national Education Department has little authority at other schools -- but that still gave the transfer option to some 140,000 students from 139 Miami-Dade schools.

More than 99.5 percent of them decided to stay at their neighborhood schools, averting the bureaucratic and administrative nightmare district administrators had feared. ''People are basically happy and content with their schools,'' said Mercedes Toural, deputy superintendent for curriculum and instruction. ``Many of these schools under [Florida's] A+ [Plan for Education] did average or well -- some are C schools, B schools or A schools.''

Most of the eligible schools were elementaries, and Toural said parents are also wary of busing such young children out of their neighborhood.

Furthermore, the federal standards are complicated; schools can fall short even if most of their students are performing well on standardized tests.

School-choice advocates, though, suspect large districts only met the minimum legal requirements for notifying parents and created arduous application processes.

In Miami-Dade, parents had to go to their child's neighborhood school to fill out an application, then return to the school three weeks later to pick up the results.

''They could make that a heck of a lot easier,'' said Lisa Graham Keegan, chief executive officer of the Education Leaders Council, a Washington-based school-reform advocacy group. ``It's a new program that people don't know exists, and the school district may not be interested in fronting the money for this exercise.''

Participation in another popular school-choice program, Opportunity Scholarships, is also limited to a few hundred students, though it continued its years-long growth in Miami-Dade.

The transfers are available to students at schools that received an F grade from the state this year and have at least one additional F since 2001. They can be used in two ways: 535 students elected to take taxpayer-funded vouchers to attend private schools in the fall, and 496 want to move to better-performing public schools in the area.

The private-school option is more controversial -- opponents say it draws money out of the public-school system since the districts do not receive funding for students who use the voucher -- and its use this year could be 40 percent higher than last year.

But that number is normally deceiving, Toural said. Parents often apply for vouchers but don't use them, and many others return to public schools within a year.

— Matthew I. Pinzur
Miami Herald


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