by Clint Bolick to the Wall Street Journal
September 7, 2006 -- LOS ANGELES -- This city is the main front in the pitched battle over the No Child Left Behind Act. Like many large urban school districts across the nation -- though more brazenly -- the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) is resisting the law's core command: that no child be forced to attend a failing school.
In LAUSD, there are over 300,000 children in schools the state has declared failing under NCLB's requirements for adequate yearly progress. Under the law, such children must be provided opportunities to transfer to better-performing schools within the district. To date, fewer than two out of every 1,000 eligible children have transferred -- much lower even than the paltry 1% transfer figure nationwide. In neighboring Compton, whose schools are a disaster, the number of families transferring their children to better schools is a whopping zero.
The question is whether Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings -- whose administration has made NCLB the centerpiece of its education agenda -- will do anything about it. She has the power to withhold federal funds from districts that fail to comply with NCLB, and has threatened to do just that. Rhetoric, so far, has exceeded action.
In L.A., the district has squelched school choice for children in failing schools by evading deadlines for notifying families of their transfer options; burying information in bureaucratese; and encouraging families to accept after-school supplemental services (often provided by the same district employees who fail to get the job done during the regular school day) rather than transfers. Still, the district insists that the reason for the low transfer numbers is that parents don't want their kids to leave failing schools.
That explanation rings false because, well, it is. The Polling Company surveyed Los Angeles and Compton parents whose children are eligible to transfer their children out of failing schools. Only 11% knew their school was rated as failing, and fewer than one-fifth of those parents (just nine out of 409 surveyed) recalled receiving notice to that effect from the districts -- a key NCLB requirement. Once informed of their schools' status and their transfer rights, 82% expressed a desire to move their children to better schools.
The parents were twice as likely to prefer transfers to private schools than to other public schools, but as of yet private school choice is not an option under NCLB. That is a serious defect in the law, because the number of children eligible for transfers in inner-city school districts vastly exceeds the number of seats in better-performing public schools. "We don't have the space," LAUSD Superintendent Roy Romer candidly acknowledged. "Think about it. We're 160,000 seats short. Where do you transfer to?"
In response, Republican Sens. Lamar Alexander and John Ensign and Reps. Buck McKeon and Sam Johnson have proposed adding private options under NCLB for children in chronically failing schools. But for now, the only hope for these kids is for Secretary Spellings to hold the districts' feet to the fire.
Last month, Ms. Spellings threatened to withhold federal funds unless the California Department of Education produced a plan by Aug. 15 to facilitate transfers for children in failing schools. That deadline passed with no action.
Meanwhile, Ms. Spellings has granted scores of waivers from NCLB requirements to school districts across the nation. These allow certain districts with failing schools to offer supplemental services to children before offering transfers. This reverses the order Congress stipulated, providing for transfers first and supplemental services only for those children remaining. By bureaucratic fiat, Ms. Spellings has delayed for thousands of children the chance to escape poor schools -- and the day of reckoning for districts that are failing their most basic responsibilities.
NCLB can survive the waiver carrots, but only if they are accompanied by a serious stick. Were Ms. Spellings to yank federal funding and make an example of LAUSD, it would be the shot heard round the education world. School districts across the nation finally would have to enlist all possible options -- interdistrict transfers, charter schools, private schools -- to aid children stuck in failing schools. And, if past experience holds true, those schools finally will have a spur for improvement as their students leave and take funds with them.
But for now, LAUSD is calling Ms. Spellings's rhetoric. The California media seems to agree: Not a single major newspaper has reported on the secretary's threat to withhold federal funds, which if taken seriously ought to constitute front-page news.
NCLB is a flawed law in many respects. Still, it may represent the last true hope, at the national level, to ensure that our education system truly leaves no child behind. The establishment is chafing furiously under the tethers of accountability. If these slip away, it is unlikely that any politician will have the courage to buckle them back down again.
For better or worse, the law grants the secretary of education vast discretion in enforcement. But the law itself is clear in command: No child should be forced to endure a failing school for one minute, let alone 12 years. Under this administration's watch, four million children -- by the states' own conservative measures -- are in schools that have been failing for at least six consecutive years. Ms. Spellings has the power to make sure they are offered a brighter future.
Will she or won't she? Margaret Spellings's actions in the coming days will determine far more than the Bush administration's education legacy. They will determine whether our nation will make good at last on its sacred promise of educational opportunity.
• Mr. Bolick is president and general counsel of the Alliance for School Choice.
• 4LAKids notes: Mr Bolick (bio+background) and his organization are noted proponents for privatizing public education and voucher programs. He and they have mounted a number lawsuits in that goal and this article has the appearance of a first, warning shot. With the LAUSD, the Mayor and City of LA; Parents groups, Teachers and Administrators in disarray –preoccupied with other educational and legal challenges – the District offers an ideal target of opportunity.