Texas Pushes Harder to Make School Choice Work

Measures this month put state at vanguard of high-school choice

Tenth-Grader Joseph Stewart lives five minutes from Eastern Hills High School, but he wouldn't go there even if you paid him cold hard cash. Gangs rule the hallways of the East Ft. Worth, Texas, high school, and dropout rates are high. More than half the students failed statewide achievement tests last year.

Thanks to a Texas school-choice law, Joseph has trans-ferred to a much better high school in nearby Arlington. The change of scenery, he says, has made all the difference.

"Most kids in Arlington really care about their grades and want to go on to college," says the sophomore, who will return to Arlington's Lamar High School this fall. "My math teacher pushed us hard last year, but if you were doing bad, she'd let you come in early and she'd help you out."

Still, while Texas is on the leading edge of a nationwide movement to give students more choice in high school education, Joseph is a rarity. Of the roughly 700,000 students eligible for transfers, only 50 have switched.

But Texas is looking to change that. A law passed this month strengthens the state's two-year-old transfer program - making more students eligible for transfers, requiring school districts to notify parents of eligible children, and offering incentives for schools to accept transfers.

While eight other states also have similar transfer programs, no other state requires that parents be notified about which schools are substandard. Some say this step may be the best hope in restoring trust in America's public schools.

"Texas has been out front about ranking schools and saying who's not cutting it," says Kathy Christie, a policy analyst at the nonpartisan Education Commission of the States in Denver. "That's really one of the best sanctions against failing schools. Parents don't want to wait three years for schools to turn things around."

Enacted in 1995, Texas' transfer program, called the Public Education Grant (PEG), allowed students to leave schools where 50 percent of students didn't pass the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills test in any of the past three years or where dropout rates are high. Now, under the new law, students can leave schools where 50 percent of students didn't pass the test in any two of the past three years. Nearly 1 out of 6 state schools has been deemed unfit.

All the wrangling has taken place too late to affect this fall's classes, but advocacy groups say they have received hundreds of calls from parents interested in transfers. Transfer requests are due in February.

While these efforts may have piqued interest in the program, getting schools to accept transfer students is a different story. The low response rate during PEG's first two years is not unusual in open-enrollment programs, where parents must ferry their kids to faraway schools. But the main reason that the number of transfers is low in Texas is that school districts have the right to reject transfers, either for space reasons or for no reason at all.

"The trick is to find a district that is willing to accept transfers," says Debbie Graves Ratcliffe, spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency, which oversees the PEG program. "Most school districts don't accept students at all because they're too full. If you drive around and see how many schools have portable buildings, you'll see they're over capacity."

The new law may help, sweetening the deal for schools. Districts will receive a $2,387 basic allotment plus a 10 percent bonus for every transfer student from a low-performing school.

Yet even though these new financial incentives will bolster public-school choice, proponents of the new law say they suspect most districts are working to undermine it.

"School districts first said there wasn't enough money to cover their costs, but they weren't interested in school choice anyway," says Bill Peacock, director of the the Austin school-choice group, Putting Children First.

But schools may feel increasing pressure to accept transfers soon. If PEG fails, the next option would likely be private-school vouchers, which public schools oppose. A voucher plan would mean using public funds to pay for private-school tuitions.

Some schools have already caught on. While the overwhelming majority of districts said no to transfer students during the past two years, Arlington is an overachiever. The affluent Dallas suburb has accepted 18 transfer students during that time, a third of the state's total number.

"It is our philosophical position to be the district of choice," says Charlene Robertson, of the Arlington Independent School District. "You're going to have happier parents and happier students if they can choose their schools."

But even in Arlington, space is tight. Portable classrooms are used on every campus in the city and nearly $235 million in construction is planned over the next few years to accommodate the city's growing school population.

For his part, Joseph Stewart is keeping his eyes on Eastern Hills High. If test scores at the Ft. Worth school improve, he might lose his eligibility as a transfer student. The prospect, at this point, seems unlikely.

Last year, Eastern Hills fared poorly on the achievement tests, and the two middle schools that feed into it had low performance scores as well. "So if the same thing happens this year, I should be able to stay in Arlington until I'm a senior," he says.

If Transfer Program Doesn't Work, Vouchers May Follow

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