Pupil transfer opportunity could run into roadblocks

Under law, busing costs for area school districts could total $12 million

May 16, 2002|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

Parents will have a better chance this fall to rescue their children from underperforming schools across the Baltimore region, thanks to a new federal law. But moving to a better school still might prove more difficult than Congress intended.

The No Child Left Behind Act, signed this year by President Bush, requires every school district to give parents of students in poorly performing schools a chance to transfer their children to higher-achieving schools - and it requires the school districts to pay for the buses to take them there.

No one is clear yet on how many children might take advantage of the opportunity to trade up, but students in more than 100 schools in 15 Maryland districts could be eligible for a transfer, state school officials say.

The total transportation cost for Baltimore area districts could be as much as $12 million - funded from Title I federal aid provided to help low-income students.

The transfer law itself is broad. It makes an unambiguous statement that children - particularly those from poor families - should not have to stay in schools that are failing them.

On its face, the law appears to give parents the right to demand that their child be bused to any thriving school within their district's boundaries. In theory, tens of thousands of children might be crisscrossing their systems in search of a better school.

But intricacies in implementation are likely to soften the punch the law was meant to deliver. Many area school districts are already developing stipulations that make widespread exodus unlikely.

Howard County, for example, will have to give students in six underperforming elementary schools a chance to transfer. But Howard officials said the pupils can move only within a "reasonable distance" and to better schools with enough room to accommodate them.

With most schools crowded in the fast-growing county, that adds up to just three out of 37 elementary schools.

And Howard has devised a hierarchy of applicants who will get first priority, a caveat allowed under the law. Low-income students doing the worst in a selected school get first choice.

"This won't be a free-for-all, no," said Kimberly Statham, the district's chief academic officer. "It will have to be handled on a case-by-case basis."

Of the six school systems in the Baltimore area, only Carroll County has no schools eligible for the transfer program.

Schools are eligible if they are identified by the state as being in need of improvement. In Maryland, a school is placed in that category if its performance on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program exams has declined for two consecutive years.

Before the new law, parents had the theoretical right to move their children to better schools, but school systems were not required to pay for transportation and could use local laws or school regulations to refuse transfers. Now, the transportation must be paid for and there are no exceptions.

"Last year, there were not that many parents that exercised that option," said JoAnne Carter, the state's assistant superintendent for the division of student and school services. "We are anticipating that there will be more this year because transportation will be provided. That could have been perceived as a barrier last year."

Three Baltimore County schools - Powhatan and Winfield elementaries and Woodlawn Middle - will be eligible for the program in the fall. This past school year, Sussex Elementary was the only elementary school in the program but its scores improved enough for it to be removed from the list.

Only one pupil left Sussex; eight left Woodlawn, but two returned before the school year was out.

That lack of interest was probably linked to the midyear start of the transfer option, the lack of transportation and the small amount of publicity for the program, school officials said, adding that they have no idea how much busing for the program might cost next school year.

The new law requires districts to allocate 15 percent of their Title I money to pay for busing. For Baltimore County, that could be $2.4 million - money that would otherwise be spent in the classrooms.

"We'll have to find a way to fund it," said Baltimore County schools spokesman Charles A. Herndon. "It does not come with additional funding."

"Certainly we'll let people know about it, but I don't think we'll actively solicit participation in the program," he said.

Students from six elementary schools in Anne Arundel County will be allowed to transfer to higher-performing schools, but that school system doesn't know how many children will opt to transfer or what it will cost in transportation, said Barbara Gross, the system's Title I coordinator.

Anne Arundel has not yet identified which schools will be receiving students from under-performing schools. But Gross said the school system will decide which school each transfer student will attend and will try to keep the students within their local feeder systems.

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