Scramble Over New School Rules

voucher school students AP

Two weeks before school began, Kent Bunderson learned he was getting 40 new kids.

The students, in northeastern Utah's Uintah school district, normally would have attended West Junior High School. This fall, they were allowed to transfer to Vernal Junior High School, 30 miles away, where test scores are a bit better.

"We're still getting a few trickling in," said Bunderson, Vernal's principal.

Like thousands of other students nationwide, those in Utah are getting their first taste of a new federal law that allows students at 8,652 struggling schools to transfer, often at taxpayer expense, to other public schools. Part of a compromise forged in Congress last year after lawmakers defeated President Bush's voucher proposal, the law was designed to give poor families more control over their children's education.

As the new school year begins, however, schools are scrambling to figure out how to get students to the new schools and fulfill requests from parents just learning about the law themselves. As a result, they expect few transfers this year.

"We are just flying by the seat of our pants here, trying to do what's right," said Deputy Superintendent Don Beers of the Cobb County, Ga., system.

The new requirements combine old and new. Under a 1994 law, schools had to test students three times in reading and math during their careers between kindergarten and 12th grade. The new "No Child Left Behind" law, approved last year by Congress and signed by President Bush in January, gives teeth to the scores, saying they must improve at least a bit every year, for all children - including minorities, poor children, those in special education and those learning English. By 2005, schools will have to test in every grade from third through eighth.

Schools with stagnant scores get more money, but students must be offered the option of transferring to better-performing public schools. After three years, a school district must offer tutoring at its expense. After four years, it must begin paying transportation costs of students who opt to attend other schools.

Most school systems are still trying to decide which companies or nonprofit groups will do the tutoring.

But they predict that shining a light on persistently low-scoring schools will force them to change how they're run.

In Utah, Carlyn Lee transferred her grandson, Karl J. Lee, to Vernal because he failed nearly every class at West last year.

"He wouldn't turn in his homework ... because it wasn't demanded," she said. "We weren't getting any support down there."

Critics note that the new law allows states themselves to decide how tough their tests and standards are — so in Texas, which has 4.1 million students, state officials say there are only 46 underperforming schools. But Michigan, with only 1.7 million students, has 1,513 underperforming schools.

The difference? In Michigan, students are judged not only in reading and math, but also science and writing. The Michigan Educational Assessment Program test, or MEAP, accounts for the high number of schools on the list, state Board of Education President Kathleen Straus said.

"Our standards are high, and the MEAP test is hard," she said. "Some states have basic-skills tests. Ours go way beyond. Something has to change here. We shouldn't be penalized because our standards are tougher."

Then there's Arkansas, whose fourth- and eighth-graders were below the national average in reading and math in 2000, but where state officials say there are no "failing" schools.

The program also could run afoul of decades-old desegregation programs that tell schools where students must attend.

"You just don't go back to court and tell the judge you're going to let those kids transfer out of those schools," said Paul Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.

Houston, who thinks "the trigger got pulled very fast on this thing," said giving school districts another year to sort out the legal and logistical questions would have been helpful.

Undersecretary of Education Eugene Hickok said such complaints are "driven by system interests," not those of students.

In Santa Fe, N.M., parent Gilda Montano chose to keep her sixth-grade daughter, an honor-roll student, at Agua Fria Elementary School, which serves the surrounding village on Santa Fe's fast-growing south side.

"I grew up in Agua Fria. I went to Agua Fria school," Montano said. Her daughter goes to school with her neighbors and her relatives, she said. "That's really important to me, being part of the community."

Officials also say many of the better-performing schools are already full.

"We're very, very, very tight on space," said Larry Leverett, superintendent of the Plainfield, N.J., school district. If every eligible parent asked for a transfer, he'd have to turn away 90 percent.

In Utah, Bunderson worries that all those students leaving West Junior High will hurt those who remain. That complaint is similar to those of voucher critics, who say that when activist parents move their children from a struggling school, it hurts those who remain.

"It's going to be a high-risk population without a lot of family support," he said.

In Fresno, Calif., where 40 percent of city schools were classified as low-performing, school district spokeswoman Jill Marmolejo said she hasn't seen a significant rise in transfers.

"A child who isn't achieving at one school is not going to be able to go to another school and achieve overnight," she said. "If there was a magic arrow to solve this problem, it would have been shot by now."

Written By GREG TOPPO
  • Mary-Jayne McKay

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