A step toward school choice, ready or not

Bush officials want to help parents pull laggard kids out of 'failing' schools this fall.

The Bush administration, eager to make its mark on the high-profile issue of education, is moving faster on key reforms than many schools feel they can cope with.

Most significantly, by this fall schools will have to help many students exit so-called "failing" schools for other public schools of their choice.

The move, part of the sweeping education act President Bush signed in January, doesn't represent full-blown school choice – no vouchers or private schools involved. But it is a big step toward his goal of greater accountability in American schools.

Yet the swiftness of the action, outlined in a letter from Education Secretary Rod Paige that is reaching state capitols this week, is already causing consternation among educators and school administrators nationwide.

Many school officials feel caught unprepared by the quick timetable. They worry, moreover, that the new parental choices could backfire by crowding successful schools up to their fire-safety capacity, regardless of the impact on class sizes.

In the past, federal education reforms have often taken years to trickle down to classrooms. The Bush administration, with this week's warning letter, is saying its regulations under the new "no child left behind" law will be different: Change will happen – now.

"How education leaders respond to this new law will either result in momentum, commitment, possibility, and hope or it will paralyze people with fear. And frankly, we're seeing a bit of both out there," says Kati Haycock, director of the Education Trust, which consults with schools on how to improve education for poor children.

In addition to allowing students to opt out of failing schools (under definitions of failure that vary from state to state), the law calls for schools to offer tutoring or other "supplemental" academic services to students who remain in those schools.

The changes mark a major shift in the federal role in education, which has been to give federal dollars to schools with many poor students. Now Washington will also leverage choices for students trapped in failing schools, either by mandates or direct grants to families to pay for tutors or after-school programs.

A scramble for schools

But for many school districts, it will be a scramble to meet the new rules, especially at a time when states are grappling with budget deficits.

"The letter says we should start planning. I'd love to start planning, but 25 percent of our schools start up in 10 days," says Delaine Eastin, California's State Superintendent of Public Instruction. "It's not even realistic."

With some 6.1 million children, the California school system has more than 1,000 schools currently rated in need of improvement. The proposed regulations, which would become official in August, schools are required to transport students who opt to leave failing schools to some other school in the district. If there is a rush to the exit door, low-achieving students from low-income families will have priority.

For those who stay, some federal dollars will shift from schools to parents, to pay for supplemental educational services from state-approved providers. These could be small faith-based groups or tutoring giants.

"Even if we could ramp up, we still don't have the time to review every applicant to provide supplemental services," says State Superintendent Eastin.

'No flawed children'

For Bush and key congressional leaders who backed the new law, the accelerated start is a highly visible commitment to the core idea of the new education reform: that no student should be written off as unteachable. And it comes at a time when polls say that Republicans are losing public trust on the issue of education.

"The whole purpose of the new law is to get rid of the excuse that some of our children are flawed and there is nothing we can do about it," says Eugene Hickok, US undersecretary of education.

He says that, far from surprising states with the new rules, he has been meeting with state representatives since January.

There is anecdotal evidence that some states are lowering their testing standards so that fewer schools are designated as low-performing, but others insist they will stay the course.

"We've set our proficiency levels high, and there's a resistance to lowering our benchmarks to do better [under the new federal law]. We want to make sure we do not take a step backwards," says Charles Zogby, Pennsylvania's secretary of education.

In addition to new requirements, the new law provides a 35 percent increase in federal funding for education, which begins arriving to states in July.

The rules on public-school choice and supplemental services could affect about 7,000 schools now rated in need of improvement. Other, successful schools may face an influx of new students. Critics, including teachers' unions, say that shifting large numbers of students from failing schools to more successful ones is a risky strategy.

"Research shows that class size is very important," says Jane Meroney of the American Federation of Teachers. "If a school is working at a certain class size, and you up it to 25 or 35 or 40, you may lose a lot of what makes that school successful."

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