As schools 'fail,' parents talk transfers

Options costly for districts as federal rules allow school choice.

This spring, Mary-Powel Thomas got a letter notifying her that the school her two sons attend in Brooklyn had failed to make "adequate yearly progress" for the third year in a row. As a result, under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, she could send them to another school, or they could get extra tutoring if she kept them at PS 38, which is only three blocks from their home.

Ms. Thomas, who is president of the local PTA, decided to do neither. "My kids have gotten a great education at that school," she says. "The word failure is thrown around really carelessly."

Across the country, millions of parents will be notified in the next few months that their children are attending schools that don't make the new federal grade set by the No Child Left Behind Act.

In New York City, more than 25 percent of the schools have already been labeled failing. In Charlotte, N.C., 60 percent didn't pass. In New Mexico, more than 70 percent of the schools statewide would have failed if the new standards had been applied, so it got an extension.

As school systems across the country struggle to implement the 2001 law, which is the largest injection of federal accountability demands into local school affairs in history, its critics are increasing rapidly. They charge that while the goals of No Child Left Behind are indeed laudable - that all children should be brought up to grade level - its accountability measures are unreliable, inconsistent, and in some cases, outright unattainable. This means that many schools making significant improvements, like PS 38, are getting lumped with schools that are not.

"The adequate yearly progress [AYP] net has been cast very wide, and so it's going to catch a very high percentage of schools," says David Shreve, an education policy expert at the National Conference of State Legislatures. "We either have to accept the fact that a vast majority of our schools are awful, or we have to accept the AYP net has been cast too broadly and it's catching way more schools than it should."

That's particularly troubling for the nation's cash-strapped states, since every school that's identified as failing costs them money. And so far, the federal government is providing only a fraction of the resources that are needed to properly implement the new law.

"There's no guarantee whatsoever under No Child Left Behind that any school has the basic resources that they need to bring these children up to the level of achievement the law calls for," says Michael Rebell, executive director and counsel of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, a nonprofit education funding advocacy group in New York. "You can beat them over the head as much as you want, but you can't get blood from a stone."

This month, the National Education Association (NEA) announced plans to sue the US government for failing to provide adequate funding to schools to meet the new standards. They point to a provision in the law that states: "Nothing in this Act shall be construed to authorize an ... employee of the Federal Government to ... mandate a State or any subdivision thereof to spend any funds or incur any costs not paid for under this Act."

Yet a study by the General Accounting Office found that states will have to spend between $1.9 billion and $5.3 billion to implement the testing provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act in the next five years. The NEA is quick to point out that doesn't include the cost of providing transfers to new schools or the extra tutoring in schools that fail to make the "adequate yearly progress" three years in a row.

The Department of Education counters that it's providing historically high levels of funding. Indeed, federal education spending is 20 percent more than in 2001, before the act was implemented. But critics note that since federal education spending has been historically low, what sounds like a large increase actually translates into few dollars to buy blackboards and books.

Beyond the frustrations about funding, there's also been quite a bit of confusion about how to implement the law, particularly in the area of school choice.

Last year, school districts were told they didn't have to offer transfers if all the other schools in the district were at capacity. But later on, the Education Department changed its interpretation and said they did have to offer transfers, even if that meant districts had to hire more teachers or build new classrooms.

"Last year, it was really hit-or-miss in terms of whether students transferred," says Jack Jennings of the Center for Education Policy, a nonprofit research center in Washington, which is tracking the implementation of No Child Left Behind. "We were told that in a number a states, many parents didn't want to move their kids because they liked their local schools. But some parents' groups told us they weren't educated about what they could do."

Dolores Peña got notice that her daughter was attending a failing school in upper Manhattan. She had thought seriously about transferring her, but the choices were too far away - in places like Brooklyn and the Bronx. So she decided to keep her daughter at her neighborhood school.

"I'm looking forward to seeing a lot of curriculum changes come to the school," she says, "because we need a lot of help if we're going to turn things around."

For Mary-Powel Thomas, talk about transferring is frustrating. She and other parents have worked hard with the teachers and principal at PS 38 improve it. She's afraid that the label "failing" will cause many of the better students to leave, making it more even more difficult in the future to for the school to meet the new standards, thus starting a cycle that will ultimately undermine the school.

"The letter we got was unfortunate because it made people think, 'Oh no, there's something wrong with the school and I didn't realize it,' " she says. "But my kids have had great teachers there."

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