Monday, June 11, 2001

Failing schools drawing scrutiny

Congress weighs transfer policy

By Derrick DePledge
Enquirer Washington Bureau

        WASHINGTON — Joe Murray's son, Logan, was happy attending kindergarten at his neighborhood public school, but Mr. Murray and his wife were looking for something that fit a little better.

        After researching a dozen public and private school options, they settled on Fillmore Elementary School and asked Hamilton City Schools for a transfer.

        “The staff and the principal there are so enthusiastic,” said Mr. Murray, whose son is now a thriving second-grader. “Education is very important to us, so we were willing to spend the time finding the right school. I think it's absolutely key to what you do later in life.”

        Each year, more than 500 parents of all income backgrounds petition Hamilton administrators so their children can change schools. Many parents ask because a certain school is closer to their job or day-care provider while others have children with social or disciplinary challenges or special needs. Some, like the Murrays, think their child would work well with staff at a particular school.

        Although school districts already permit student transfers, usually after special permission, a federal education bill under consideration in Congress would allow low-income parents whose children are in failing public schools to move their children to another public school within the same district.

        A version of the bill the House approved would authorize such transfers as soon as a school is judged as failing while the Senate version of the bill would allow transfers after three years.

        The provision is important to conservatives who have so far failed to persuade Congress to provide federal vouchers for parents who want to take their children out of troubled public schools.

        “Parents need to have the option of another public school or a charter school,” said Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, who guided the education bill through the House. “It allows parents to get their child into a better school.”

        School choice, while attractive to some educators and parents, has its complications.

        Schools may not have the class room space available to accept student transfers.

        School districts may have a disproportionate number of failing schools and few options for parents. Some schools may fall further behind if more driven students decide to leave.

        Parents able to transfer their children to another school would be eligible for transportation costs in the second year and money for tutoring — including from faith-based groups — after the third year.

        The House and Senate will negotiate the details once the Senate acts on its version of the bill in the next few weeks.

        Janet Baker, superintendent of Hamilton City Schools, said some public schools could be diminished if parents flee.

        “We know that those schools that are doing poorly have a lot of challenges,” she said. “They have barriers they are working to overcome. If students are taken out of these schools, then the schools never really have a chance.”

        Mr. Boehner, chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said the potential for losing students — and federal money — could encourage some struggling public schools to improve.

        The House version of the bill also contains a much greater degree of school flexibility so schools can try different strategies.

        School administrators could use a portion of federal education money at their discretion, provided they achieve results.

        Dave Tobergte, principal at Freedom Elementary School in West Chester, said schools would be able to shift federal money to tutoring, transportation, summer school or other programs, depending on the need.

        “I believe a lot more decisions should be made at the local level,” he said. “We've spent a lot of money on education, but we haven't had the results.”

        The National School Boards Association, an Alexandria, Va.-based education group, has fought Mr. Boehner and other conservatives on vouchers but has endorsed the school choice and school flexibility provisions.

        “It says to schools, "I'm still accountable, but I have the flexibility,'” said Reggie Felton, director of federal relations for the group.

        Mr. Murray said he was so satisfied with his son's experience at Fillmore that he will petition for his daughter, Taylor, who is now in kindergarten at her neighborhood school, to join Logan when she moves on to first grade.

        But he said the government should be cautious about how it defines a school as failing — a process that will involve student testing but is still being debated — and careful about the procedure for switching schools.

        “Would everybody get to leave?” Mr. Murray asked. “What would you do with half-vacant schools?”


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