Providence Parents Call School Choice a Sham
Ohanian Comment: Rhonda Bleeker is right: "They're making a law that can't be implemented." And if you want to see what happens when "better" schools admit more students, read Diary of the Weary:
With all of the city's middle schools deemed failing under No Child Left Behind, superintendents in its suburbs say their schools are already too crowded to offer city students a better alternative.
CRANSTON -- More than a dozen Providence parents crossed the line into suburbia yesterday in search of a better education for their children.
With some of their children in tow, the parents went up the front steps of the Hugh B. Bain Middle School in Cranston to apply for admission.
Principal Bob Gerardi's response: a polite no.
For one thing, Gerardi said, there are already so many students at Bain that the school has portable classrooms at the rear of the building.
One parent, Rebecca Waggner, retorted that the issue is not whether there is enough space at Bain, or any other school. The issue, she said, is that federal law states that all children are supposed to get the same high quality public education regardless of whether they live in poor urban areas or more affluent suburbs.
Yesterday's encounter with Gerardi was intended to show that the federal mandate that children in under-performing schools be allowed to move to higher-performing schools is not workable. School "choice," as it is known, is a "sham," said Rhonda Bleecker, another parent of a Providence middle school student. Because all of Providence's middle schools have been ranked as failing, there are no good "choices" within the district, the parents said.
"They're making a law that can't be implemented," Bleecker said.
Mary Scott, a mother of another middle school student, characterized the "choice" option required by the law entitled No Child Left Behind as "just another false promise of the Bush administration."
The Providence parents who went to Bain belong to a grass-roots community organization, Rhode Island ACORN -- Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now.
At one point, Bleecker handed Gerardi an excerpt of the federal law that states that a district that can't provide choice within its own jurisdiction "must to the extent practicable, establish a cooperative agreement with other LEAs [local education agencies] that are willing to accept its students as transfers."
But there is nothing in the law that forces the districts on the receiving end to take the students.
Gerardi told Bleecker that the group had raised "big-picture questions" that are best taken to elected officials.
Outside the meeting, Bleecker said she believes the underlying reason choice is stymied is that affluent suburban districts don't want to take in the urban poor.
Education Commissioner Peter McWalters has said publicly that "interdistrict choice would be a very good option," according to Jennifer Wood, his chief legal counsel, but "there is very little political interest in doing this."
Requiring the transfer of students to other school districts could only be required by an act of the General Assembly.
Wood said that when choice within a district is not feasible, the federal education law requires failing schools to provide after-school tutoring, or supplemental services.
The law also requires Schools Supt. Melody A. Johnson to ask her counterparts in neighboring communities to accept students for whom Providence cannot provide choice.
In August, Johnson wrote to superintendents in East Providence, Pawtucket, Johnston, Cranston and North Providence. All of them declined to accept Providence students, according to a spokeswoman for Johnson.
Yesterday, Gerardi read the parents the text of Cranston Schools Supt. Catherine M. Ciarlo's response to Johnson, which stated that Cranston's middle schools are crowded and cannot accept additional students.
"We need to talk to the superintendent," Bleecker said.
Ciarlo was in meetings all day yesterday and could not be reached, Gerardi said. Moreover, student admissions is the responsibility of Asst. Supt. Richard Scherza.
The ACORN members, who had squeezed into a small conference room on the first floor of the school, made note of Scherza's phone number.
They said they would call Scherza for an appointment, and filed out of the school quietly.
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