School choice with a hitch; Students may transfer from failing sites, but state hasn’t issued list

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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If your child is stuck in a failing school, a new federal law is supposed to give him a way out this fall: the right to transfer to any better school in your district.

So that parents would have time to plan a switch, states across the country notified them months ago about which schools were eligible.

But Texas still hasn’t told parents, and they won’t for a few more weeks – after the new school year has already started for many kids.

The result: Parents who want to take advantage of the new law may have to uproot their children during the school year.

“We understand parents’ frustration,” said Adrienne Sobolak, spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency. “We want to make sure the list is accurate before we release it.”

The school choice provision was included in the No Child Left Behind Act, the massive education bill President Bush signed into law in January. Most of the provisions don’t kick in for several years. The right to transfer schools this fall is one of the first visible signs of its impact.

In Texas, a school had to be rated low-performing for two consecutive years to make the list of failing campuses. Schools then stay on the list until they’ve been rated acceptable – the next notch up – or better for two straight years.

By that standard, seven North Texas schools are likely to be tagged with the label. Six are in the Dallas school district: Silberstein, Buckner, Henderson, Hernandez and Sam Houston elementaries and Buckner Academy. The seventh is Kennedy-Curry Middle School in Wilmer-Hutchins.

But schools won’t know for sure until at least Aug. 23. That’s when TEA officials say they hope to publish a list of eligible schools on the Web. Even then, officials say, the list might not be final.

DISD starts the fall semester Aug. 26, Wilmer-Hutchins on Aug. 20. Most area districts start Aug. 19.

“It’s hard for parents to take advantage of public school choice if they don’t know the options that are available to them,” said Allan Parker, head of the Texas Justice Foundation, a pro-school-choice group in San Antonio.

The standardized test scores that largely determine which schools are low-performing were available to the TEA in May. But state officials waited until last week to announce school ratings so the data could be more closely evaluated. And after the ratings are announced, schools have two weeks to file appeals – which is what pushes back the list’s release.

“It’s a new program for us,” Ms. Sobolak said. “We’re encouraging parents not to wait for the list. If you’re interested in a transfer, go talk to your school and see what other options might be available.”

The delay might also put Texas in violation of federal rules. A federal rule that has been preliminarily adopted by the U.S. Department of Education requires a state to identify failing schools before the start of the school year. The rule is expected to take effect within a month.

Federal officials have estimated that about 8,600 of the nation’s 92,000 public schools will have to offer transfers. Schools get on the failing-schools list by failing to make “adequate yearly progress” for two straight years. Adequate yearly progress is the federal standard to judge whether a school is successfully educating its students.

Each state gets to define this standard in its own way, and as a result, there’s wide variation on how many schools make the list in each state. Michigan and California, for example, each had more than 1,000 schools on the list, but Arkansas had none.

Other public-school choice mechanisms already exist in Texas. Most prominent is the Public Education Grant program, which allows students in bad schools to transfer to schools in neighboring school districts. Because their definitions overlap, all students eligible for a No Child Left Behind transfer are also eligible for a PEG transfer.

But the new federal transfers are more useful than PEG in several ways. Most important, students transferring through the federal program are guaranteed transportation to and from their new schools. PEG students are on their own regarding transportation.

PEG does allow for a broader range of transfers because it theoretically allows students to transfer from one district to another – say, from a bad Dallas school to a good Plano school. But under PEG, good districts are free to claim they’re overcrowded and close their door to any incoming students.

Fewer than 200 Texas students used a Public Education Grant last year, despite the fact more than 141,000 were eligible.

The federal program says schools can’t close their doors to transfers unless it would cause a health or safety code violation.

Most states released their lists of eligible schools months ago. Some of them might wish they’d followed Texas’ lead and proceeded more slowly.

Ohio, for example, issued its list of eligible schools last month, only to find out miscalculations had put more than 200 schools on the list incorrectly. “In our zeal to get the information out, it turned out it was erroneous,” Ohio Department of Education spokeswoman Dottie Howe said.