Getting a choice with few options; Some students may transfer, but not many districts will take them

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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All Barbara Senter wanted was to get her son into a good school. She didn’t think it was too much to ask.

She lived in the boundaries of the Wilmer-Hutchins school district, which meant 13-year-old J.C. was supposed to attend Kennedy-Curry Middle School, which Ms. Senter describes as “a disaster.”

“It’s not a place to get an education,” she said of Kennedy-Curry, which the state has rated low performing in three of the past six years.

Ms. Senter thought she had an out – a state program called the Public Education Grant. PEG, created in 1995, is supposed to let children in bad schools transfer to a better campus in another district.

But when she started calling the school districts around her, she was surprised to find that her son wasn’t welcome.

“They all said they wouldn’t take him,” Ms. Senter said. “I was trapped. There weren’t any options open to me.”

Ms. Senter isn’t alone. The vast majority of Texas school districts have chosen to shut their doors to students trying to escape bad schools through the PEG program – even if they have empty seats in their classrooms.

Last year, more than 141,000 Texas students were eligible to transfer to a better school. But fewer than 200 did, often because no nearby school districts would take them. Forty-six of more than 1,000 school districts enrolled PEG transfers.

Of 34 area districts surveyed by The Dallas Morning News, nine said they accept students who apply through the program on a space-available basis. Only five of those accepted PEG students last year.

When it was created in 1995, PEG was touted as a significant step toward school choice in Texas. Although parents now have other options, including charter schools, the effect of the PEG program has been negligible at best.

“My expectations were very, very high,” said former state Rep. Henry Cuellar of Laredo, who sponsored the legislation in 1995. “I expected parents to say, ‘Hey, now I have this opportunity to take my child somewhere else.’ But it became clear it wasn’t happening.”

Simple concept

The concept behind the program is simple: Students in bad schools shouldn’t have to stay there. Each year, the state releases a list of schools that students are eligible to leave. Schools are listed if they have been rated “low-performing” by the state’s accountability system any time in the past three years. Students at those schools are free to switch to another district.

Districts that accept such children get the state education funding that would have gone to their home district, plus a 10 percent incentive bonus. Parents are responsible for getting their child to and from school every day.

The problem is that, while students are free to leave bad schools, districts aren’t required to take them in, and very few do.

“As long as you give school districts the choice of whether or not to serve children in need, you’re not going to make much progress,” said Allan Parker, founder of the Texas Justice Foundation, a San Antonio group that advocates school choice and has been involved in a handful of PEG-related lawsuits against school districts.

Omar Garcia, director of state funding for the Texas Education Agency, agreed that the program isn’t making much difference.

“Kids can’t find a district that’s willing to accept them,” Mr. Garcia said.

Many districts say their main reason for turning PEG transfers away is simple – they don’t have room. Most Dallas-area school districts are in the midst of a major growth spurt, and new schools can only be built so quickly.

“Over half of our schools are at 95 percent capacity,” said Sherry Easterling, manager of student administrative services for Plano schools, who said she “gets calls every day” from students wanting to transfer in.

Limited seats

“You’re trying to build schools to accommodate a growing population,” said Julie Thannum, spokeswoman for the Carroll district, where all schools are rated exemplary. “If you have a limited number of seats, do you give one to someone not from your district? I think that’s the reluctance.”

The three largest districts in North Texas – Dallas, Fort Worth and Arlington – all take PEG transfers. But urban districts like those are often the districts PEG students are trying to leave. Dallas, for example, accounts for 39 of 55 area schools on the PEG list for next school year. With few exceptions, the area’s most desirable schools are closed off.

Mr. Parker, the San Antonio critic of the PEG program, said the overcrowding argument isn’t the only reason suburban districts turn away students from low-performing schools. After all, crowding is no less a problem for districts such as Dallas, Fort Worth and Arlington, he said.

And, he adds, state law allows districts to admit PEG transfers on a case-by-case basis if there’s room in a school or grade. Irving ISD, for example, accepts such students in its high schools because there is room but turns down students for elementary or middle schools.

“The crowding issue is often just a pretext,” Mr. Parker said. “I think there’s some fear of inner-city children by the suburbs. … It’s an irrational fear: ‘If we let one or two in, we’d be flooded with them.'”

Dr. Cuellar said he believes some districts fear PEG students could drag down their test scores and hurt accountability ratings.

“They probably won’t say it in public,” he said.

In addition to saying they’re too crowded to accept PEG students, suburban districts argue that grants aren’t enough to cover a student’s education. Although accepting a PEG transfer brings a district more state funding, state funding makes up less than half what a district spends on a student. Most per-pupil spending comes from local property taxes, which a PEG doesn’t do anything to increase.

“In our case, the state pays about 40 percent of what it costs us to educate a child,” said Tom Davenport, superintendent of Lake Dallas ISD. “Local taxpayers make up the difference, and it’s not fair to them to pick up the bill for someone from out of district.”

Mr. Davenport said his district participates in the program because he believes it’s the right thing to do, but he considers PEG a “political ploy by the Legislature to make it appear students have a real choice when they don’t.”

He said he would support the program more if the state fully funded the cost of a transferring student’s education.

Mr. Garcia, of the state agency, said the best way to encourage more districts to accept transfers would be to raise funding. Dr. Cuellar tried to address that in 1997, when he proposed the 10 percent bonus.

“We tried to make it work, but it has still struggled,” Dr. Cuellar said.

Small cost

Mac Bernd, superintendent of Arlington schools, said the actual cost of a PEG transfer to a district is usually quite small.

“Financially, we aren’t harmed in any way by a PEG grant,” he said. “We only accept them if we already have room for them. We think it’s the right thing to do.”

“These kids need a place to go, and if we have room we’ll take them,” said James Rose, who directs Arlington’s transfer program.

Districts that don’t accept PEG transfers, Mr. Rose said, “are just pushing kids to private schools. They don’t want the kids. If you take the philosophy that you’re going to try to help people and make the playing field as level as possible, you take the kids.”

The few other districts that do take PEG transfers expressed a similar belief.

“We never considered denying PEGs,” said Judy Thomas, Dallas’ student transfer coordinator. “We see it as our job. We’re in the business of educating students.”

The Dallas school district has 14 Wilmer-Hutchins students who transferred through the PEG program. Ms. Senter said she didn’t consider sending her son to Dallas schools.

Instead, J.C., now 14, was sent to live during the week with his grandparents in Canton. He returns home, 65 miles away, on weekends.

“It was either that or lie about where I live to get him in somewhere else,” she said. “You have to think about his needs and forget about my broken heart.”

Although less than ideal, the change has been an improvement for J.C.’s education, she said. “He seems a lot happier,” she said. “He’s been a hundred percent better.”

The sort of solution Ms. Senter chose indicates that programs like PEG have been less than effective, critics say.

“It shows we do have school choice in Texas,” Mr. Parker said. “That choice is called moving.”

Staff Writer Matt Stiles contributed to this report.