How Long Must Kids in Failing Schools Wait?

Last week, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings unveiled a new school choice proposal aimed at helping low-income children trapped in underperforming public schools. In New York alone, where Spellings delivered her speech, an estimated 125,000 students attend persistently failing public schools. President Bush’s proposal would give thousands of these children-and their peers throughout the nation-the ability to attend a better school.  

“More than 1,700 schools around the country have failed to meet state standards for five or six years in a row,” Spellings explained. “We’re proposing a new $100 million Opportunity Scholarships Fund to help low-income students in these schools attend the private school of their choice or receive intensive one-on-one tutoring.” Thousands of students throughout the nation stand to benefit from such a program if the legislation is passed by Congress.  

According to preliminary estimates, 170,000 students in Los Angeles are attending persistently failing public schools as defined by the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act of 2002.  In other large districts, such as Chicago (120,000), Philadelphia (63,000), Baltimore (23,000), and Memphis (16,000), thousands of students are enrolled in persistently failing schools and would be eligible to participate in the administration’s Opportunity Scholarship program.  

The secretary’s speech followed the release of a new Department of Education report on the implementation of No Child Left Behind, which showed that participation in the existing school choice programs remains low.  Under No Child Left Behind, schools that fail to meet goals of adequate yearly progress for two years must offer low-income students the option to transfer to a better public school.  Schools that fail for three years must offer low-income students after-school tutoring.  Less than one percent of 3.9 million eligible students took advantage of the opportunity to transfer to an alternative public school.  A higher, though fairly small, percentage (17 percent of 1.4 million eligible students) utilized the after-school tutoring provisions of NCLB.  

One of the main reasons for the low participation rates in the NCLB school choice provisions is the failure of school systems to implement the program and communicate its benefits. The Department of Education found that half of all school districts notified parents about the public school choice option after the school year had already started, when few parents would want to change their child’s school. Spellings is ordering a review of states’ compliance with the school choice provisions and warns that “withholding federal funds” is a possible consequence for states that fail to meet this responsibility.   

Yet, even if the transfer and tutoring provisions of the earlier legislation were implemented perfectly, they would still only help children at the margins and would limit their enrollment options to choices within the public school system. Unfortunately, in some communities there are few open seats in high quality public schools. The opportunity scholarships initiative would provide children with expanded options of authentic school choice.  

The plan is similar to the new federal school voucher program for Washington, D.C., through which 1,700 low-income children have been able to attend private school. The D.C. voucher program has steadily gained popularity among families.  According to the Washington Scholarship Fund, there were approximately two applicants for every available scholarship.  In all, the Bush Administration’s Opportunity Scholarships initiative could fund private-school scholarships for more than 20,000 low-income children in cities across the nation.  

Opponents of school choice will likely argue-as they have against other school choice programs-that, rather than providing vouchers, funds should be used to fix the failing public school system.  But children trapped in failing schools cannot afford to wait until they are somehow brought up to par. Even under the President’s proposed Opportunity Scholarship program, eligible students are attending schools that have already failed to meet state standards for six or more years.  If anything, this proposal doesn’t go far enough in rescuing students from substandard schools.  

Consider the track record of Thurgood Marshall Middle School in Baltimore — a school that would quality for the administration’s program-where 75 percent of the 795 students are from economically disadvantaged families.  There, according to a report by Standard and Poors, less than 2 percent of all 8th graders achieved “proficient” scores on the state’s math test and just 21 percent had “proficient” scores in reading.  How much longer must children in this school wait?

Like the children of Thurgood Marshall Middle School, students in the 1,700 persistently failing public schools throughout the nation deserve help right now. Opportunity Scholarships can give them a real chance to receive a quality education-a chance that only real school choice can provide.


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