State offers school choice

Pupils at 141 sites to be told they may move within system

15 districts affected

U.S. rules effective July 1 spur offers in poor neighborhoods

April 25, 2001|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

Thousands of poor children in Maryland's worst-performing schools will soon have the chance to transfer to better public schools as the result of a new federal initiative, state education officials announced yesterday.

Maryland has identified 141 schools beset by declining test scores and attendance rates that must offer parents the option of moving their children to more successful public schools in the same school system.

Fifteen of Maryland's 24 school systems - along with others across the country - will be required to give parents some choice in their children's schooling because of a change in federal spending rules that will become fully effective July 1.

But it's unclear exactly how far-reaching these steps toward school choice will be because of policy provisions that will let schools turn down such transfer requests.

"We don't really know how many parents will want their children to transfer," said JoAnne Carter, an assistant state superintendent who oversees federal Title I programs in schools whose students are from low-income families. "Parents, particularly of younger children, really prefer to have them in their ... neighborhood school."

Baltimore began notifying parents earlier this school year that they could choose to transfer their children, in return for an increase in federal funding. Not a single parent, however, has taken up the offer. Prince George's County also has attracted little parental interest at targeted schools, Carter said.

Nonetheless, when Carter advised the state board of the new federal requirement yesterday, several members worried that it could lead to widespread upheaval. Rural school systems could find it difficult to provide transportation because of the great distances, cautioned board member JoAnn T. Bell, while larger and more urban ones might face a "logistical nightmare" in shuttling hundreds of schoolchildren.

School systems could use federal funds to pay for busing children who choose to attend a better-performing school that is not in their neighborhood. The transportation reimbursement is one of several provisions to make sure that low-income schools don't lose Title I funds even if children transfer. But schools could also turn down transfer requests if the child's school of choice is deemed to be too far away.

Parents are likely to encounter other obstacles in trying to move their children out of troubled neighborhood schools. Better-performing schools could refuse transfers if they don't have enough classroom space or teachers. Local boards could also be exempted if they have policies that prohibit transfers. However, only one school system in Maryland - Howard County - has a moratorium now on any transfers except for families that move into new neighborhoods during a school year.

School choice for children in failing schools was a little-publicized provision in a budget deal struck in November 1999 between congressional leaders and former President Bill Clinton.

The education spending bill included $134 million in new funds - raised to $224 million this year - to help improve academic standards in schools that have performed poorly despite years of Title I assistance. In exchange for more money, school systems had to agree to let children leave Title I schools that had been deemed failing by a state for two or more years in a row.

Maryland's share of the federal grant has been about $3.3 million a year - but to date, the chief beneficiaries have been Baltimore City and Prince George's County.

Many school systems nationwide have just begun to put the new requirement in place, and the U.S. Department of Education does not have any statistics on how many parents have chosen to move their children. More than 7,500 Title I schools across the country are classified as requiring improvement.

Maryland officials have identified 141 such schools - the overwhelming majority of them in Baltimore - based on low and deteriorating test scores. Most of the schools already are on probation.

Baltimore has by far the most schools - 88 of its 146 elementary and middle schools - that have to give children the chance to transfer. Prince George's County has 10 such schools, Montgomery County eight, Anne Arundel County six and Harford County three.

Though no parent in the city has chosen another school so far, education experts predicted that would change.

"It's a major decision to take a child out of a school," said Joseph Viteritti, a professor of public policy at New York University who wrote a book making the case for school choice. "The more informed people are, the more supportive they are. If parents understand it, they do want the choice."

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