Leaving too many children behind

Posted: Mar 27, 2006 12:05 AM

This past week my organization, CURE, along with the Alliance for School Choice, filed legal action in California against the Los Angeles Unified School District and the Compton Unified School District demanding compliance with the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law.

Specifically, our complaint demands these two major school districts implement provisions under NCLB requiring them to provide and publicize school transfer options for children in failing schools (those not meeting standards set in their own state for two consecutive years).

NCLB's provisions for choice, although limited, are vitally important for the success of the law. How can kids be protected and pressure put on schools to improve if the kids are trapped and can't leave and go somewhere else? Yet, this is what is going on, despite requirements of the law.

According to our suit, 250,000 kids in the Los Angeles system are eligible to transfer to a better performing school. Yet, there have only been 527 (.2 percent) transfers. In Compton, also a dismally performing school district, there have been a grand total of zero transfers.

We claim the Los Angeles district provides parental notification in a half-hearted manner that makes it almost impossible for parents to deal with the option to transfer in an informed, timely and prudent manner. It appears that in Compton parents have not been receiving any notification about school failing status and the transfer option.

The truth of the matter is that what we are seeing in Los Angeles and Compton represents a small sample of a grand nationwide failure in implementing the transfer option of No Child Left Behind.

A 2004 report issued by the General Accounting Office found that there were more than 3 million children nationwide in failing schools and eligible to transfer to better performing schools. Yet, only around 1 percent has transferred.

Despite the central importance to No Child Left Behind of allowing kids in failing schools to transfer, a number of factors make its efficient implementation an unlikely bet.

Because NCLB only provides the option to transfer to another better performing local public school, the universe of educational alternatives is, at the outset, severely limited. This reality is further exacerbated by the fact that the failing schools are overwhelmingly in poor inner city areas. The likelihood of a good alternative nearby public school, with space available, is slim.

According to a study in The New York Times a few years ago, Baltimore had 30,000 kids in failing schools and 194 places in better schools in the district; Chicago, 30,000 kids and 1,170 places; Los Angeles, 223,000 kids, zero available places.

Layered on top of this clear and perhaps fatal flaw of NCLB is the fact that alignment of rights and responsibilities is engineered for failure. The same school management that produced the failing schools to begin with is the management responsible for telling families that the school is failing and giving them good information and advice on transferring out their kid. And it is to this same management to which one must turn with complaints (as we must do with ours in our legal filing).

While black and latino kids languish, trapped in Los Angeles' failing schools (31.5 percent demonstrate proficiency in English, 25.7 percent proficiency in math), the Los Angeles school district is busy firing salvos back and forth with scholars at Harvard debating whether the drop-out rate in the Los Angeles system is horrible or just pathetic. According to a Harvard study, 45 percent of kids in Los Angeles schools graduate in four years. The Los Angeles school establishment rejects this data and proudly claims that it's 70 percent.

Being uneducated in America is a ticket to oblivion. Unemployment rates today are almost four times higher among those without a high school diploma than among those with at least a bachelor's degree. Twenty-five years ago, a college graduate earned on average twice what someone without a high school diploma earned. Today it is almost three times as much.

Eighty percent of kids in failing schools are minorities. Seventy two percent of black males in their 20s who have no high school diploma are unemployed.

Each day we get closer to sealing the reality of creating a permanent, irredeemable underclass in our nation. The real shock therapy we need _ nationwide school choice and vouchers where parents have broad freedom where to send their kids to school _ is fought tooth and nail by self interested teachers unions and organizations like, incredibly, the NAACP.

Meanwhile, let's at least get No Child Left Behind right. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings has been notified of our complaint and requested to enforce the law by withholding federal funds from non-compliant school districts.