Persistently Failing Schools Keep Growing

Think back to the year 2000. President Clinton was in the White House. The dot-com bubble was still inflating. The Twin Towers were standing, and Saddam Hussein ruled Iraq. It’s amazing how much has changed over the last six years.

For many of America’s schoolchildren, however, far too little has changed. Millions were enrolled in persistently failing public schools back in 2000, and millions are enrolled in failing schools today.

The Department of Education recently reported that 1,065 public schools across the United States qualify for "restructuring" under No Child Left Behind. This means that a school has failed to make adequate yearly progress on state tests for six years or more. By September, the list of "restructuring" schools could grow to as many as 2,000.

Not surprisingly, many of these persistently failing public schools can be found in our nation’s biggest cities. The Department of Education estimates that there are 167 "restructuring" schools in New York City, 181 in Chicago, 75 in Los Angeles, 82 in Philadelphia, and 48 in Detroit. In these cities alone, as many as 500,000 children are enrolled in persistently failing public schools, according to a new Heritage Foundation report.

"Restructuring" can mean different things in different states and school districts. Though reforms are required by NCLB, the school district can choose which reforms it will undertake to satisfy the law. The reforms range from the expected (such as redesigning the curriculum and changing school programs) to the drastic (such as becoming a charter school). If history is any guide, few school districts will choose the latter option. Last week, for example, Chicago announced that its schools would implement the weakest range of reforms allowed under NCLB.

In contrast, President Bush has proposed an emergency plan to make good on NCLB’s original promise and give thousands of children trapped in persistently failing public schools the opportunity to choose a better school. In his 2007 budget, President Bush included $100 million for the America’s Opportunity Scholarships for Kids initiative. The plan would provide grants to local organizations to award private school scholarships, worth $4,000 apiece, to low-income children enrolled in "restructuring" schools. In all, more than 23,000 underprivileged children could receive scholarships to attend better schools.

Children in persistently failing schools already are entitled to public school choice and subsidized after-school tutoring under No Child Left Behind. But Department of Education statistics suggest that far too few children benefit from these limited choice options. Less than 1% of the 3.9 million eligible students used the public school transfer option in the 2003-04 school year. Fewer than 17% participated in after-school tutoring.

Evidence suggests that poor implementation by school districts is partly to blame for the low participation rates. For instance, the Department of Education reports that half of all school districts notified parents of the public school transfer option after the school year had already begun. In these school districts, these letters came, on average, five weeks after the first day of school.

Despite recent successes for school choice on Capitol Hill, President Bush’s Opportunity Scholarship proposal faces an uncertain outlook. In 2001, the Administration’s proposed voucher plan was stripped from the original No Child Left Behind plan early in the legislative process. During an election year, many members of Congress may prefer to avoid a political battle over school choice, fearful that powerful interest groups like the teachers unions will fiercely oppose any threat to the status quo.

But the parents of the millions of children stuck in persistently failing public schools have a different perspective. They must wonder why their congressional representatives are so unwilling to give them the option to send their child to a quality school. After all, a 2003 survey found that 42% of members of Congress had chosen to send at least one child to private school. These constituents want the same opportunity to give their children the best education possible.

Some members of Congress may try to dismiss figures showing that millions of children are trapped in failing schools as just another statistic. But for every child denied the opportunity to receive a quality education, it’s much more than a statistic. It’s a tragedy with lifelong consequences.