In failing schools, how real is transfer option?

Last year, Jesús Uriostegui was eager for his daughter Citlalli to transfer out of Richards Career Academy, her failing high school on Chicago's southwest side. Under federal law, he and other parents with children in failing schools can request transfers to better-performing institutions.

Yet here in Chicago, that right remains largely on paper: There simply aren't enough schools that have remained off the "needs improvement" list to accept all transfer requests. Of the 19,000 Chicago kids who asked for transfers last year under the new federal law, only 1,100 got them. Citlalli was among those who did not.

Chicago's dearth of slots, though particularly severe, is not unique: It exemplifies a major impediment to the advance of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law in America's urban districts and sabotages the aim of giving students - especially those in failing inner-city classrooms - more "choice" in where they go to school.

While supporters of the controversial law say the problems will be worked out, the early experience of Chicago and other cities shows how the ideals of a law passed in Washington can be difficult to implement in the complicated world of urban education.

In the long list of consequences for schools under NCLB, the transfer option is one of the earliest to kick in - students can transfer after their schools land on the "needs improvement" list two years running - and carries some of the largest logistical headaches. Students can't transfer to schools that don't exist, after all, and - unless interdistrict agreements become an option - many cities may see scenarios like Chicago's, in which "choice" is largely meaningless. Next year, only 20 of 600 schools are likely to accept transfers.

"In big cities, it's going to be a problem," says Madlene Hamilton, a researcher with the Center on Education Policy in Washington. "Either they don't have room in the other schools or they just don't have the schools. They need to find other ways to increase capacity, either by opening more schools, or hiring more teachers, or getting space in those schools whatever way they can."

Champions of NCLB say the transfer option not only helps individual students, but encourage creation of better schools. Yet some critics see the provision as a veiled attempt to promote vouchers, and worry that it will drain floundering schools of resources and the brightest students.

Even the staunchest NCLB advocates agree transfers won't work everywhere. Many rural districts only have one school for each grade, and attending nearby districts could mean a 100-mile drive - or, in parts of Alaska and Hawaii, a plane trip.

In such cases, officials say, free tutoring (the next consequence to kick in after transfers) is an acceptable substitute. That's the route Chicago is taking. Last year it provided tutoring to 57,000 students, and expects that number to rise this year. Last month, the district sent all parents a letter telling them how to apply for both transfers and tutoring.

"What Chicago did this year is a perfect example of what every district should be doing," says Nina Rees, deputy undersecretary for innovation and improvement at the US Department of Education. She's pleased that Chicago is informing parents early on of their options, and encouraging schools-within-schools and new charter schools. The district also notes that 45,000 children whose neighborhood schools are considered failing exercise choice under the district's separate magnet-school program.

But some see a fundamental problem with the mandates, saying they deflect resources from reform efforts under way. As the law stands, they note, it's difficult for schools with large minority and low-income populations to get themselves off the failing list, even when they make improvements.

"As you get farther and farther out, you're going to see a higher percentage of schools hit with these sanctions," says Daniel Kaufman, a spokesman for the National Education Association. "Say you have an African-American subgroup that doesn't meet adequate yearly progress [AYP] goals. You correct that. But the next year the Hispanic subgroup doesn't meet it. [The school is] still seen as not making AYP for two years in a row."

Aspects of the law, particularly its focus on narrowing the achievement gap for minorities, are important, says Mr. Kaufman, "but there are some common-sense changes that need to be made." In terms of transfers, for instance, he'd like to limit the option to students in the groups that aren't meeting the standards.

Chicago's extreme numbers - next year, officials predict there will be 457 spots for roughly 300,000 students - are also due to the fact that its racially balanced magnet schools need not accept transfers. Many parents want to see the two programs melded, so that those in failing schools get first priority at magnet schools. But that's not their chief concern.

"This is distracting from the real issue," says Julie Woestehoff, director of Parents United for Responsible Education, a parent watchdog group here. "Why do we have over 400 schools on the 'needs improvement' list? Why don't we spend our money on that?"

Most parents, she says, prefer to keep their kids in neighborhood schools - they just want those schools to improve.

Still, some say the low interest in transfers that's often reported is misleading. One of the most comprehensive studies of the law, authored by the Citizens' Commission on Civil Rights (CCCR) found that parents often had great interest in transfers, especially if they knew of their options.

Overall, nearly six percent of eligible students applied for transfers this year - up from last year and substantial, according to Dianne Piché, CCCR director, given the generally poor information that parents receive. While the study found a few districts making solid efforts to facilitate transfers, many more discouraged transfers or told parents of options too late.

"This should be viewed as extremely comparable to desegregation work," says Piché. "It requires more than sending a note home to parents. Work needs to be done at the receiving schools ... exactly the kind of work that needed to be done with desegregation plans."

And, as with desegregation, she sees districts like Chicago as prime examples of why interdistrict agreements are necessary. Transfers across districts are nominally encouraged already, but without strong incentives - extra funds, perhaps, or temporary exemption from NCLB-required performance gains - most say they're unlikely to occur. Even within districts, parents at receiving schools worry that an influx of transfers will bring down their scores. Neighboring districts - like Orland Park near Chicago - that have contemplated opening their doors have sparked outrage among parents.

"There's a real leadership challenge here of communicating with the public to make all of us concerned with the education of everyone's children," says Ross Wiener, policy director at the Education Trust, which focuses on narrowing the achievement gap. He, like most choice advocates, also emphasizes that it's only a small piece of fixing the failing schools.

"There are far too many children assigned to schools that aren't serving them," Mr. Wiener says. "If we say there aren't enough other places for them to go, we have to be committed to making their schools better."

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