At school, a new era of multiple choices for parents

Moms and dads get new options regarding the schools kids attend and add-on services.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

So, you've lined up the pencils and notebooks, new school clothes, and learned the names of the teachers. Note to parents: Your new school year is still just beginning.

This fall marks the first year when neighborhood public schools feel the brunt of a new national experiment in accountability - and the impact on parents may be even greater than that on students and their teachers.

One result: more choices for parents. This fall, parents of 54 million students nationwide will see more comparative data about public schools than has been available, even to top administrators.

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Parents will know which schools have highly qualified teachers, and which do not. They will know which schools are making "adequate yearly progress" toward state standards, and which are not.

The question is: What to do with the new information?

If parents act on new insights by moving their kids to different schools - ones that aren't deemed "in need of improvement," for example - it could have big implications not just for the future of their children but also for the shape of school reforms nationwide.

Already, charter schools, sought after by many parents for innovative approaches, house 685,000 students.

The No Child Left Behind Act, which President Bush once dubbed "the cornerstone of my administration," adds new choices. It requires that all groups of students - whatever their race, ethnicity, poverty level, English proficiency, or disability - demonstrate "adequate yearly progress." If not, parents have options, which begin to kick in this year.

For parents in the least successful of US schools, the choice may be to leave the neighborhood school or to tap into some $2 billion in federal funds to buy academic help, such as tutoring or after-school program.

"The new law says that choices should not depend on your ZIP code or your personal wealth. The goal now is to make choice a permanent part of public education for every student, and we're definitely moving in that direction," says Lisa Graham Keegan, former Arizona Superintendent of Education and CEO of the Education Leaders Council, an education reform advocacy group. But she adds that school districts are still far from complying with the laws provisions, and are especially lax in informing parents that services are available. "Last year, only about $40 million of the $2 billion in funds available were accessed by parents. This is a huge potential market of intervention for students.... We are not tapping it adequately."

Most of the nation's 15,000 school districts are still calculating which schools fall into the "need of improvement" category. They are then required by law to inform parents of this option, to offer alternative placements for children who want to move, and to help with transportation to get them there.

But critics of the new law warn that parents should not rely on a single score for making decisions about school quality. "Parent are going to have to do a lot more study than ever before. You can't tell from a simple number what is the best fit for your child," says Kathleen Lyons, a spokesman for the National Education Association, the No. 1 teachers union.

Education Department officials admit there is a wide gap between the law and current practice, but say that that gap is narrowing. "One thing I do every day is scan local newspapers, and you get a sense that the conversation this year is very interesting," says Eugene Hickok, the No. 2 official at the US Department of Education. "Almost everywhere from as large a place as Chicago to Carlisle, Pa., the newspapers are beginning to pick up on the schools that need improvement and supplemental services."

Last year, some 8,600 schools are identified as in need of improvement, according to the US Department of Education. The numbers for this year will be available later this fall. But public schools are already circulating lists for parents showing approved providers of educational services.

"Parents are making requests to transfer, but what's not clear yet is how much real choice there will be," says Bill Jackson, president of GreatSchools.net, an online resource that reaches 12 percent of US parents.

Much of this new information about choices for parents is being circulated by such independent groups via the Internet.

"You can now get a good education without worrying about what neighborhood you live in. But if parents want to make wise choices, they have to be informed," says Onnie Shekerjian, who is parent advocacy director for the Internet Education Exchange in Tempe, Ariz.

A mother of three, she says her own plunge into school choice came when her son's third-grade teacher told her that he was just an average kid and shouldn't be expected to read well. "We didn't accept that," she says. Instead, Nicholas transferred to a public charter school with a very intensive reading program. "He's now an avid reader. I couldn't keep him in books this summer," she says.

Arizona has one of the most highly developed systems of public school choice in the nation, including 395 public charter schools and a tax credit system to fund private school scholarships.

But even in states that don't have such an intensive choice network, options are proliferating. There are some 2,700 public charter schools nationwide, most in Arizona, California, Texas, Florida, and Michigan. More than 100 new charter schools are opening this year. Just over 1 percent of public school students now attend charter schools, which are publicly funded but mission-driven and independent of the local school district.

Some 16 states have approved virtual high schools, according to a survey by Education Week. Pennsylvania opens the school year with eight "cyber charter" schools.

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