Article Published in the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot
As public schools prepare to start a new year, administrators in many localities are grumbling about the burdens and inconsistencies imposed by No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the new law governing federal aid to K-12 education.
In some cases, school officials are irritated at having to offer parents a choice of another public school, plus transportation to it, if their children are in schools that have failed for two years to make adequate progress. That grumble doesn’t deserve a lot of sympathy. Giving parents options, albeit limited ones, is a positive feature of the new federal law.
In Chicago, Mayor Daley termed “ridiculous” the federal law’s mandating that parents in 179 Chicago schools be offered transfers for their children to other public schools. There just isn’t room, he groused, and besides many of the recipient public schools also are “non-performing.” The Mayor probably didn’t intend it as such, but that’s an excellent rationale for helping families exercise broader, private choice. In recent years, Chicago has seen the closing for financial reasons of several Catholic schools that might have offered some of the children enhanced opportunities to learn.
A school’s failure for a third year will give parents the chance to use part of their child’s federal subsidy, up to $1,000, to purchase remedial help, which may include private tutors outside the government system. That provision may prove to carry more clout than the power to transfer to a different public school. Private providers like Sylvan, Kaplan, and Huntington are doing much to help fill gaps in learning, and the NCLB encourage the rise of still more tutorial services.
Nevertheless, some of the officials’ gripes are legitimate. Consider the U.S. Department of Education’s enumeration state by state of the 8,600 Title I-aided schools deemed to have fallen short of state-defined “adequate yearly progress.”
The numbers differ wildly from one state to another. This may be the most egregious contrast: Michigan had 1,513 failing schools, while Arkansas had none – zero — it identified as failing. And there are more numbers to cause head-scratching. Massachusetts had 259 failing schools, but West Virginia had only 13?
On the other hand, are low numbers sometimes the legitimate product of a state’s hard work to raise the bar? When Virginia linked school accreditation to student achievement, most schools came up short. But after four years of concentration on meeting the Standards of Learning, only 122 of 1,700 schools still face a warning of the loss of accreditation. That may help explain why only 34 Title I schools in Virginia wound up on the NCLB sanctions list this summer.
The disparate and debatable numbers are a byproduct of lingering respect for local control. If the feds decreed uniform standards and assessments, Washington would be in charge of a national curriculum, which is a scary thought. Still, the “goofy grades” (as the Grand Rapids Press dubbed them) raise doubts about early returns. It seems akin to the states’ taking an open-book test.
Eventually, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a voluntary gauge of student knowledge run by a nonpartisan board since 1969, may generate enough comparative data after all states begin testing all kids annually in grades 3-8 to show which states are serious about standards and which are merely fooling their customers. That could encourage pro-reform activism state by state.
Perhaps what’s needed is a broader, longer view. NCLB is taking effect quickly but its worth (or lack thereof) will become known long-term. School officials ought to consider how choice can be a friend not a foe in addressing identified failures. A 10-year study of public-school choice in Minnesota recently established that it aided both students and the school systems. In addition, tax credits (as in Florida, Arizona, and Pennsylvania) that generate scholarship funds for the needy or for the learning disabled can help children find the help they need, be it in a public school or a private school.
Finally, we all need to remember this: Not all the cries for help will be coming from places that wind up on “failing schools” lists. It’s important that no child be left behind, but it is equally important that each child have a chance to excel. All children should have an array of educational choices.
—Robert Holland is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute.
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