When he signed his signature education initiative into law, President Bush stated that “Parents must be given real options in the face of failure in order to make sure reform is meaningful.” But four years later, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has provided few American families with real options.
Under No Child Left Behind, students in low-performing schools are supposed to be able to seek out alternative educational opportunities. Specifically, public schools that fail to make adequate yearly progress over time must offer students the option to transfer to a better public school or choose an after-school tutoring program.
But few students have benefited from these provisions. According to the Department of Education, less than 1% of the nearly 4 million eligible students transferred public schools in the 2003-04 school year. About 233,000 students, or 17% of those eligible, participated in the after-school tutoring program that year.
For the students who were able to take advantage of choice under NCLB, these new options may have been a lifeline from an otherwise hopeless situation. But clearly these provisions have made far less of an impact than the law’s creators envisioned.
For that shortcoming, blame the public education bureaucracy’s poor implementation and lack of cooperation. The Department of Education found that half of all public school districts notified parents of the transfer option after the school year had already begun, too late for most students to benefit from changing schools. And less than half of eligible families were aware of the after-school tutoring program, according to a Department of Education focus group. Tutoring providers report that school districts are often uncooperative, which leads to reduced student participation.
Dr. Barbara Anderson of Knowledge Learning Corporation, a tutoring provider, highlighted the lack of awareness at a House Education and Workforce Committee hearing last week. “Our company’s experience indicates that too many parents remain unaware of supplemental educational services and the process and procedure to gain access to services,” she explained. “Unfortunately, in too many places, parent notification letters are full of legal terms and long complex explanations that only serve to confuse parents.” Is it any surprise that so few students are taking advantage of NCLB’s choice provisions?
Given this poor track record, what can be done to give children in failing schools better opportunities? One option is to tinker with No Child Left Behind to improve access to public school choice and after-school tutoring. Regulations can be changed to require schools to give parents timely and clear notification of the transfer and tutoring options. Monetary incentives could improve public school districts’ willingness to cooperate.
But reforms that take root at the state and local level show more promise. One alternative to the No Child Left Behind strategy is to give states and local communities greater freedom and flexibility to use federal education dollars. The track record under NCLB suggests that more successful school choice and after-school tutoring programs can be implemented at the state and city level with real cooperation from local communities.
San Francisco stands as a model for how real public school choice can improve a school district. As education researcher Lisa Snell has chronicled, the city implemented a system of universal public school choice and school-based management in 2000. Families can choose their children’s public schools, and public school leaders have the freedom to create school environments that appeal to parents and students. This dynamic, according to Snell, has “produced significant academic success for children in the district.”
As with public school choice, after-school tutoring is more easily integrated into the education system when it’s run at the local level. A good example is Pennsylvania’s enactment of statewide and district-level tutoring programs. In 2003, Governor Ed Rendell, a Democrat, signed into law the Educational Assistance Program to provide tutoring to students in low-performing school districts. In the program’s first year, 46,055 Pennsylvania students received tutoring in reading and math. Another statewide program, Classroom Plus, offers $500 tutoring vouchers to underperforming students. In 2004-05, 1,336 students received vouchers. Sixty-six percent made progress in reading and 73% made progress in math after receiving an average of 16 hours of tutoring in reading and 14 hours in math.
All this demonstrates that state and local communities can more successfully implement education reforms that work than Congress or the Department of Education. As Congress prepares for the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind next year, school choice advocates should support reforms that transfer power back to the state and local level-a more fertile ground for the most promising school reforms to blossom.