School choice option has officials perplexed

2 years later, districts struggle with federal law

May 23, 2004|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

More than two years after the federal No Child Left Behind Act was signed into law, states are having problems implementing the initiative designed to raise student achievement, particularly a provision that allows pupils to transfer from struggling schools.

"To be very frank, the law was not written by people who understand the way a school system operates," said Rae Ellen Levene, a Howard County schools administrator.

Levene and her counterparts in other school districts across Maryland are wrestling with the "public school choice" provision of the law, which allows pupils in failing elementary and middle schools that receive certain federal funds to transfer to better-performing schools.

In suburbs such as Howard and Anne Arundel counties, an "unintended consequence" has arisen, Levene said: The transfers and the money provided for them are meant to help low-income, low-performing children but are too often taken advantage of by others.

Howard has so few transfer requests from its six low-performing schools - 49 for next school year - that it never has to rely on a priority list and generally grants all requests.

"Only 2 percent of the eligible population actually transfers, and 70 percent of the 2 percent is not low income or low performing," Levene said, which means the federal funds are being spent on pupils for whom they are not intended.

Problematic timeline

The process is also riddled with problems, including poorly timed releases of information. State assessment tests determine which schools are eligible for transfers, but Maryland's scores aren't completed until July or later, said Ronald A. Peiffer, deputy superintendent of Maryland public schools.

That's too late for many school districts, which don't want to face the prospect of scrambling to make transfers in the days before classes start. So many districts - including Howard and Anne Arundel - are offering transfers that they might have to rescind when the information is available.

"The potential negative there could be that you build expectations for something that may not happen," Peiffer said.

In Howard, the six schools from which transfers were allowed this school year - Bryant Woods, Cradlerock, Guilford, Phelps Luck, Swansfield and Talbott Springs elementaries - will probably have improved enough to be taken off the list by fall.

Just in case, principals at those schools sent out 2,346 letters offering transfers.

"It's just work that's not going to go anywhere," said Levene, who has prepared five other letters to explain various situations to parents dependent upon the outcome of state tests.

In Anne Arundel County, Maisha Gillins is in the same boat. Gillins, who coordinates the transfers for that school system, gave parents an April 23 deadline based on schools that were on the list last year.

"There is a concern that if the school makes it [off the list], it will be a moot point," Gillins said. "But it doesn't give you a whole lot of time if you wait until the results come out."

Scoring dilemma

The federal law says the transfers must be processed before the first day of school, so many districts offer them based on preliminary information, said Ronald J. Tomalis, counselor to the U.S. secretary of education.

"It's a difficult issue that states grapple with," Tomalis said.

Maryland began its assessment testing in late February. It couldn't start earlier because the curriculum the test measures isn't taught before then, said Bill Reinhard, spokesman for the Maryland State Department of Education. And scores take time to process.

"This is the quickest [scoring has] ever been done," he said. However, it's "not something that's done overnight."

Reinhard said offering transfers based on educated guesses are likely be the norm for years to come, but Tomalis said it doesn't have to be that way.

"The important thing to remember is there's now $400 million in the federal budget there just to help offset the costs of state testing," said Tomalis, adding that states can spend that money on speedier results.

Maryland was given $7.3 million for assessment testing this year and will receive $7.5 million in the coming fiscal year, part of the $526 million the state will receive overall in federal education funding.

The money is disbursed quarterly, Levene said, which can make for frustrating and inefficient spending.

Transportation costs

Levene is also concerned about the transportation costs associated with transfers. Schools on the transfer list must set aside 20 percent of a grant to pay for busing the transfer students, depleting resources that were meant to bolster academic improvement.

"There are too many conflicts [in the law] if you have a logical mind, too many places it doesn't make sense," Levene said, adding that she is comforted by the thought that if Howard does well enough on the tests, it won't have to offer school choice.

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