News Analysis

As Americans focused on the Thanksgiving holiday and anti-war activities, the U.S. Dept. of Education held a press conference to clarify its policies on the final regulations for the No Child Left Behind Act, passed by Congress and signed into law by George W. Bush in January.

The public was informed that there were some changes. One change concerned the part of the law that says, “Parents with a child enrolled in a school identified as in need of improvement will be able to transfer their child to a better performing public school or public charter school.”

Capacity constraints had previously been a reason for denying a student’s transfer to a successful school from a failing school. At the press conference, Dept. of Education officials declared that the No Child Left Behind Act does not permit a local school district “to preclude choice options on the basis of capacity constraints.” In the School District of Philadelphia, the majority of our schools have been identified as “in need of improvement” or as failing schools based on the state’s testing program and criteria.

The federal government also declares a school failing when students in any category – Black, Latino, special education or those with limited English – fail to close the gap on standardized tests in two years.

Therefore, if my child attends a failing school, I can transfer my child to another school within the district that has been identified as “successful.” But what will happen when parents of other children at my child’s school decide to transfer their children also? There will not be places for all of our children.

When the officials were questioned about this dilemma, they offered suggestions: Signing contracts with neighboring school districts to accept students from failing schools, hiring more teachers and building new classrooms at successful schools.

The School District of Philadelphia has waiting lists for all successful schools. Half of the charter schools are failing and “successful” ones have waiting lists. Will successful suburban school districts be willing to “contract in” students from failing Philadelphia schools?

Lower Merion spends $14,200 per student, while Philadelphia spends $7,700 per student. The federal government has not offered extra money for regionalization of schools as part of its “Choice” transfer policy. Most parents are unaware of the No Child Left Behind Act and its provisions to give parents a choice of schools.

Advocacy groups suspect that the U.S. Dept. of Education’s regulations are aimed at creating conditions that would make the case for private school vouchers, as school districts with many substandard schools and few or no empty seats in successful schools fail to deliver what the No Child Left Behind Act has promised. Of course Dept. of Education officials denied this.

Undersecretary Eugene W. Hickok said, “Vouchers have not been put back on the table. The agenda is not hidden. It’s producing better schools.” But the truth is that poor urban and rural districts have been set up to be “not in compliance with the No Child Left Behind Act”. This policy is unconscionable and distracts parents’ attention from being part of the struggle for quality education for all children. The mission of the No Child Left Behind Act is “to ensure equal access to education and to promote educational excellence throughout the nation” – an empty platitude.

This law rambles on about states setting high standards in reading and mathematics, testing their students and retesting their students to evaluate if they have achieved these standards (adequate yearly progress) and accountability is referred to as the foundation of the law.

There are consequences for not meeting goals – transfer of students to successful schools, tutoring for low income students by private entrepreneurs, replacing school staffs, restructuring schools, turning schools into charter schools, contracting private educational management companies to run the schools and the last resort – state takeover.

In Philadelphia we are experiencing all of these consequences in about 80 schools. Just as the Welfare Reform law was delegated to the states to deal with, this education reform law will be dealt with likewise. The struggle will be at the state level. Funding will go to the states to have every student in the nation proficient in reading and mathematics by the 2013-14 school year. It is so sad that with all the research in education and child development over the last 40 years, that our government has settled for such a low level of education reform.

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