"The quality of our public schools directly affects us all as parents, as students, and as citizens. Yet too many children in America are segregated by low expectations, illiteracy, and self doubt. In a constantly changing world that is demanding increasingly complex skills from its workforce, children are literally being left behind."
-- President George W. Bush
So declares a preamble to one of the most sweeping federal education initiatives in recent memory. The "No Child Left Behind Act," signed into law in 2002, set very specific achievement goals and timetables for local schools to ensure that every student in every classroom in America has a fair, equal -- and significant -- opportunity to obtain a high-quality education. The law mandates schools to reach minimum proficiencies in their respective state's academic achievement standards by specific target dates. Those not doing so are first given additional resources and, if no subsequent improvement ensues, they are sanctioned and penalized.
Those specific goals include the following expectations:
To help schools and their districts meet these goals, the law provides a blend of requirements, incentives and resources, including the following:
The federal government is providing nearly $1 billion annually in additional funding over the first five years of the new law to help states and districts strengthen K-3 reading programs, before- and after-school programs, charter schools, reading readiness, teacher professional development and education technology.
One of the more controversial aspects of the program is the provision that allows parents to move their children out of schools that fail to make their respective AYP and enroll them in a school that is on course. School officials, to say the least, shudder to think about the consequences of massive numbers of students shunning poor-performing schools in favor of better venues.
Fortunately for them, at least, that option is not being exercised to any great extent. To date, fewer than 2 percent of the estimated 75,000 students who currently attend failing schools in San Diego County have switched campuses. According to a recent news article, the reasons may be that many parents are unaware of their rights to move their kids out of a failing school and that the more desirable schools are already overcrowded and unable to take new students. And, of course, there's neighborhood school loyalty that's an important factor as well. For context, the number of children in San Diego County's failing schools nearly equals the population of Carlsbad.
At the same time, school districts are now complaining that the NCLB requirements do not take into account the fact that many of these failing schools have large numbers of transient minority students who lack a rudimentary knowledge of English and basic learning skills.
Some school districts are avoiding the possibility of mass exoduses from substandard schools by declining to accept federal funds for those schools, thereby exempting them from NCLB's performance standards. They say the costs to comply with the law's provisions and consequences exceed the federal funds at stake.
I'm troubled by these two reactions on the part of districts with at-risk schools. For one thing, the requirements for schools to make AYP are hardly rigorous; if anything, they are bare minimums. In fact, the mandated threshold for math achievement is at the 16 percentile level while language is at the 13 percentile level. Quite frankly, the AYP criteria is set very low. Tolerating test scores under the 25 percentile level is a shame and a disservice to our children and the community at large.
Then there's the time issue. Whatever the required thresholds, low-performing schools have more than enough time to get their academic houses in order. NCLB allows schools to start at these low numbers for the first three years before expecting an excelled progress. And, we're not expecting them to attain the final goals of the NCLB program until 2014 - a decade away. Today's first grader will be a junior in high school by the final deadline. Too little time to implement meaningful reform and improvements? I don't think so.
Mind you, these low-performing schools have received federal funding prior to NCLB. Those with high percentages of students on free and reduced lunch programs -- the major poverty level indicator -- have been receiving millions of dollars of federal Title 1 funding for many years now in addition to the routine array of state revenues and funding for various categorical programs. For those failing schools, NCLB is yet another indicator that these funds have not produced significant or even modest improvements in academic achievement on the part of the economically disadvantaged students who attend these schools.
And last, there's the evasion tactic. School districts that choose to forgo federal funding for their low-performing schools in order to escape the consequences of those schools not making their AYP are not attending to the needs of the students in those schools, their parents and those in the business community who eventually will have to deal with poorly educated "graduates" who will in all likelihood be barely employable.
There is some good news that NCLB is having a positive impact on the local school district most affected by the new law, San Diego City Schools. Last year, the district sent 39,831 letters to parents or guardians offering them the opportunity to enroll their children in a better-performing school.
Only 484 applications for transfer under that provision were received. A year later, 5,000 fewer letters needed to be sent offering the transfer option for the coming 2004-05 school year -- an indication that fewer children are being impacted by failing schools in that district. Also heartening is the fact that 1,646 applications for transfers have been received for the coming year -- more than a three-fold increase over the year before.
Whatever its shortcomings may be, NCLB raises hope and expectations for disadvantaged children to become proficient learners and provides the necessary tools to hold those responsible for educating those children adequately.
We need to concentrate on doing whatever it takes to make sure that, indeed, no child is left behind. That means schools need to be sure parents understand their options and that they exercise whatever alternatives there may be to keep their children out of a failing school. There are other schools -- including charter schools -- that could possibly offer a better education. Misplaced loyalty to a neighborhood school that is dying or already dead academically is not in the best interests of children who need access to the best education they can get.
At the same time, we need to hold these low-performing schools accountable and do whatever it takes to resuscitate them back to life. That will require time and a singular focus on the part of parents, individual teachers, teacher associations, administrators, and school board members to hold themselves accountable for their schools achieving meaningful results.
The required focus and accountability won't happen, though, in districts where parents, teachers and others spend most of their time squabbling about school boundaries, whether to fire a superintendent, give him or her a pay raise, or who said what at last night's school board meeting.
Such focus should be easier to maintain if we remember there are enough children in failing schools in San Diego County to fill a medium-size suburban city in North County. Unchecked, that number could rise to metropolitan levels.
That kind of population growth, we don't need.
Hovenic is president and chief executive officer of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce Foundation and executive director of the Foundation's Business Roundtable for Education. E-mail her at email@example.com.