Policy creates another stigma


Label: Federal law will allow students to transfer from schools designated as `persistently dangerous.'

October 23, 2002|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

JUST WHEN they put away the aspirin, here's the next migraine for principals of schools already deemed academic failures:

Being tagged with a scarlet PD, for "persistently dangerous," and forced to lose students by transfer to nearby "safe" schools.

The designation of persistently dangerous is one of the provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law Jan. 8 by President Bush. Buried in the 1,200-page act, it got little attention until educators started gearing up for implementation next fall. Now they're plenty nervous, and they're not getting much direction from the federal government.

The law says any student enrolled in a persistently dangerous school - as judged by expulsion and suspension records, crime reports and other data - can transfer to a "safe" school in the same district. Also eligible for transfer are students who have been victims of violent crimes in or on the campuses of public schools.

Education Week, the bible of national education news, accurately calls the PD provision a "policy cocktail mixing equal parts school choice and school safety." Most states, including Maryland, are agonizing over how best to mix the cocktail. As with this fall's designation of persistently failing schools, the states are given the job of setting ground rules, definitions and criteria.

The new law doesn't even define persistently dangerous. All it does is require state officials to establish the criteria in collaboration with a "representative sample" of local school districts.

"We've been given very little guidance," says JoAnne Carter, who heads the Maryland Education Department's school services division as well as the "work group" drawing up the rules. "We're trying to use totally objective data."

One thing seems certain. Most of the schools designated academically at risk this year will also fall in the category of persistently dangerous. Put another way, the students who can't spell "persistent" are, by and large, those who raise hell in school.

So the high-poverty districts like Baltimore City and Prince George's County - those with more suspensions, expulsions, school crime and other signs of poor discipline - will be required to offer a second round of transfers.

It hardly seems fair, and it hardly seems workable. Nearly 30,000 city children were eligible for the first round of transfers this fall. Only 347 applied, and the city found room for 194 at "better" schools.

Will the same thing happen with the transfers from persistently dangerous schools? City school officials didn't exactly break their backs last summer making news of the transfer possibilities available to parents, and they made the application process unnecessarily complicated, more at their convenience than that of parents.

Will the same thing happen with the new mandate? Will officials find room in "safe" schools? What does a designation of persistently dangerous say to the kids and parents left behind? How far back does a violent crime have to have occurred to make victims eligible to escape their schools?

And will officials honestly report discipline data with the threat of the PD designation hanging over their heads? As it is, reporting of such data is sketchy and inconsistent in almost all districts.

Maryland is doing one very sensible thing. According to Carter, the state will put schools that appear to be eligible on what amounts to a year's probation. If they're in danger of wearing the scarlet PD, they'll be given a year to improve. The actual designation, then, would be based on two years of data.

Allowing kids to flee dangerous schools might have seemed a good idea when Congress was drafting No Child Left Behind last year. But one thing is sure: As policy, it's extremely dangerous.

Policy takes the pain out of teacher transfers

Good news for teachers on the move.

The mid-Atlantic states now allow teachers to take jobs in other districts or states without losing seniority, pension and other benefits. The new policy, through an entity known as the Mid-Atlantic Regional Teachers Project, applies to teachers in Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and the District of Columbia.

"The teaching profession is not a free-market industry and often is anti-family," said Charles Coble of the Education Commission of the States, a Denver-based compact of state education leaders that financed the effort.

When teachers can't transfer without losing benefits, Coble said, they're caught in an unfair dilemma when a spouse gets transferred. The teacher following the spouse often has to start at the bottom in the new district and work back up again.

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