Left Behind' Law Bumps Into Hard Reality
The act says troubled schools can let students transfer to
better districts. It doesn't make those districts say yes.
by Susan Snyder, Philadelphia Inquirer, October 12,
For more articles like this
school year began, 30 parents in the Chester Upland School
District believed that a federal law would allow them to
transfer their children out of the troubled, low-achieving
district into one with more resources and better test scores.
They were in for a letdown.
The law, No Child Left Behind, encourages - but does not require
- districts with failing or persistently violent schools to
develop partnerships with neighboring districts if they have no
Chester Upland sent letters to the 14 other districts in
Delaware County in August, asking whether they would accept some
All 14 said no.
"They [the parents] got a rude awakening when we got the
responses back," said Granville Lash, vice chairman of Chester
Upland's Board of Control. "They didn't really understand... the
other schools don't really have to accept our kids."
Norristown got a similar response. The Montgomery County
district asked for transfer help from seven neighboring
districts within a 10-mile radius and got seven rejections.
The 200,000-student Philadelphia School District, where more
than half of the schools qualify as "needing improvement" under
the federal law, made overtures - though not official requests -
to some suburban school officials in June, and were told in
summary: Forget about it.
In New Jersey, as of 10 days ago, no school district had entered
into an agreement to use the interdistrict transfer provision
under the law, according Mike Yaple, a spokesman for the New
Jersey School Boards Association.
The Camden School District, which has all five of its middle
schools on the "needing improvement" list and its two
traditional high schools on the early-warning list, has not
asked suburban schools to take students.
Transfers a 'hoax'
The law as it appears on paper could transform lives: Students
from under-resourced schools in the Philadelphia area suddenly
could find themselves in educationally advanced classrooms.
But the transfer aspect of No Child Left Behind is not working
nationally, and that makes it nothing more than a "hoax," said
Arnold Fege of the Washington-based Public Education Network. He
said he hasn't heard of one case nationwide in which a
high-performing district has welcomed children from
"There's not much incentive for contiguous districts to take the
children," he said. The voluntary nature of the current law "is
probably not going to work without" extra money or a waiver from
some test-score requirements for the receiving district.
Under the law, districts are required to offer transfers from
schools where test scores have failed to improve for two
consecutive years. The law also prescribes other sanctions and
remedies, including free tutoring by outside providers and, in
extreme cases, overhaul of the school staff.
Suburban school officials say the suggestion of interdistrict
transfers is not only impractical, but also could ultimately
hurt their children, educationally and financially.
Administrators in districts that rejected the transfer overtures
cited specific concerns:
Many suburban schools are facing rapid enrollment growth and do
not have space.
Accepting transfers would conflict with the goal to keep class
sizes as small as possible.
The public is in opposition.
Solicitors advise against taking on transfers because of the
"If you accept one 'type' of student you may have a hard time
denying another 'type' - translated to mean, they do not want to
take on special-needs kids who may end up costing $60,000 per
year to educate," stated a letter to Paul Vallas, the
Philadelphia district's chief executive officer. The letter was
prepared by a Philadelphia education official who contacted
suburban school officials on behalf of Vallas and summarized
Michael Pladus, superintendent of the Interboro School District
in Delaware County, has other worries.
"With much greater emphasis on standardized testing, I'm afraid
that many school districts are less inclined to reach out to
assist other school districts because of the competition that
has been fostered in the name of accountability," he said.
Nicholas Ignatuk Jr., superintendent of Ridley School District,
said that local taxpayers pay for the schools and that they
alone are entitled to use them. The Delaware County district
keeps class size as low as possible. The average size in early
grades is 17. As a result, 85 percent of district students are
reading at or above grade level by second grade, he said.
"Any program required under No Child Left Behind would certainly
throw a curve to that situation and add problems to a program
that is really working very well," he said.
Problems on both sides
Officials from Philadelphia and Norristown also were concerned
about potential hurdles if the suburban districts said yes and
accepted their students. The sending district would have to pay
the tuition and probably the transportation costs, which could
detract from their efforts to make their schools better.
"I am all for choice for parents," said Lisa Andrejko,
Norristown superintendent, "if it were a choice, but not at our
expense... . But I don't think you can have it that way."
But some parents and advocates for school choice say it should
not be so easy for other districts to say no to their neighbors.
"I wish it were a requirement under the law," said Keisha
Hegamin, president of Philadelphia's Black Alliance for
Educational Options. "We get a lot of parents who just want to
get their kids out of these failing schools."
Dan Langan, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education,
defended No Child Left Behind and said there are no plans to
change it. School districts, he said, also have other options,
such as adding portable classrooms and going to a year-round
calendar to expand capacity at successful schools, approving
more charter schools, and providing tutoring services.
The reaction didn't surprise Todd Ziebarth of the Denver-based
Education Commission of the States.
"That's a can of worms that apparently the department didn't
want to open, just given the history of class and race issues
that are so apparent between suburban and urban districts," he
Vicki Phillips, secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of
Education, also said she isn't inclined to institute a
requirement or set firm guidelines on when students can be
"At this point, we are leaving it to local districts," she said.
She added that "the first and best solution" is to improve
struggling schools and districts rather than foster an elaborate
cross-district transfer scheme: "A parent's first and best
choice ought to be a neighborhood school."
Lash, of Chester Upland, said he wished the suburban districts
would help, but also said the district "has to stand up and be
accountable" for its own problems.
Chester Upland, which has had lagging test scores for years, has
been under state control. Its schools are being managed by the
for-profit Edison Schools Inc. and this year, they began to show
some test-score improvement.
Drewanda Kelley, president of the Parent Teacher Organization at
Columbus School in Chester, said she plans to keep her child in
the district and support the local schools.
But parents who want to transfer to suburban schools should be
allowed, she said.
Andrejko, of Norristown, said she turned to neighboring
districts only after exhausting all in-district options. Four of
the six elementary schools had to offer transfers. The two
remaining schools, which could receive students, took 43. Twenty
requests were turned down because there was no more room. Yet
there hasn't been an outcry from parents, she said.
She also defended the suburban districts that said no: "No one
has been rude. No one has said we don't want your kids. They're
just saying they have capacity issues."
Philadelphia found space within its district to offer transfers
to more than 1,000 students, whose parents requested them.
Realizing that more interest in transfers could develop, CEO
Vallas said he is exploring the possibility of partnerships with
two Catholic high schools in the city - Cardinal Dougherty and
Mercy Vocational High School - but is awaiting a legal opinion.
The district also is building new high schools to create more
choices in the city.
"At the end of the day, we need to improve our schools and we
need to expand school choice options within the district," he
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