Parents who won't vote with their feet

The No Child Left Behind Act, which gives pupils a chance to move from failing schools, has not been embraced by the people it is designed to help. Stephen Phillips reports

Delia Sanchez jumped at the chance to switch her sons from their inner-city primary to a better resourced suburban school when the opportunity arose last year. The new school is a breath of fresh air, she feels: her boys are being challenged and staff welcome parental involvement. The longer journey has been eased by a free bus service laid on by the inner-city school that she left.

"My children have potential," says Ms Sanchez. "It should be a right to seek other options if a school's not serving your kids."

She felt her sons had been treading water at their old school in downtown Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where teachers had their hands full ministering to struggling classmates. Her overtures to help were rebuffed.

The opportunity to switch schools came as a result of a radical new law, the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind Act. This gives poor pupils the right to transfer to more successful schools as well as to receive free private tutoring. The policy kicks in if schools miss test score targets two years running; tutoring becomes a right for pupils if the school's marks are below par three years in a row.

Supporters believe the measures put children first. The say that the educational fate of low-income pupils shouldn't be sealed by the calibre of their local schools . Permitting them to vote with their feet if their needs are not met, and allowing private firms to vie for after-school tutoring contracts shakes up complacent low-performing schools, they say.

But stories such as Ms Sanchez's are thin on the ground and critics ask if choice really is the answer. Three years after the law was introduced, the attempt to transform parents into savvy, school-shopping education consumers has been coolly received by the very people it was designed to help.

To date, just 1 per cent of pupils entitled to switch schools have done so, estimates Paul Peterson of Harvard University. Tutoring services have been used by just 10 to 15 per cent of those eligible, he says.

Parents like Ms Sanchez, who describes herself as "pro-active and engaged", are typical of those switching their children's schools. "It's our most motivated parents who've asked about choice, not the neediest," reports Richard Moore, principal of Logan elementary school in Columbia, South Carolina.

Critics point out that it is the parents of the families the reforms are meant to help that are least likely to take up the options. In working-class Lansing, Michigan, there were no takers for 700 transfer slots last year. Many pupils come from homes with single mothers who simply don't read letters informing them of new entitlements. Many of them are juggling multiple jobs so find it unfeasible to send their child to anything but the local school, says Mark Mayes, a spokesman for the school district , equivalent to our local education authority.

Those who devised the new law have not taken into account the pull of local schools, which often serve as community hubs, providing social services, healthcare and advocacy, he adds. "Parents are not swayed just by test scores."

As the second Bush term begins this week, officials are pondering how to jump-start demand for the policy amid mutual recrimination between two camps: policy-makers and firms eyeing the new school "market" on one side, and many educators who complain the measures are wrong-footed and flawed, on the other.

Proponents blame the scheme's apathetic reception on local education chiefs who have, at best, dragged their feet in promoting it and, at worst, actively sabotaged it. Education authorities "have discouraged parents from (exercising) choice," says Paul Peterson at Harvard.

The new law doesn't go far enough, contend some of its advocates. It should be extended to include public vouchers for pupils to attend private schools - an idea being piloted in Washington DC.

School obstructiveness is also implicated in the patchy adoption of tutoring. "Some have sent letters (to parents) that are so confusing you wouldn't know what your options are," complains Charles Hokanson, general counsel at the US Education Department .

Erica Harris of Chicago Public Schools acknowledges an "inherent tension" with private tutors. "They're implying they can do what you couldn't."

But vigorous publicising has failed to raise take-up to significant levels.

In Washington DC, firms declined to offer tutoring unless a quorum of pupils subscribed, to make it commercially viable.

Pupils embraced tutoring in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, but, despite $100 incentives for staying the course, dropped out in droves, says supplemental services co-ordinator Laverne Lund. "Families have fluctuating needs and students fall away."

Teething problems are to be expected, say the law's supporters. Private tutoring and switching schools entail paradigm shifts in public attitudes towards state schooling, says Krista Kafer of the Heritage Foundation, a pro-school choice think-tank. "People are used to thinking of education as a public commodity. Teaching them to be consumers is like teaching former Eastern Bloc people to vote."

At December's annual gathering of the pro-Bush Education Leaders Council in Florida, US Education Department officials, advocacy groups, conservative policy wonks and private vendors emphasised direct outreach to parents.

The Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options, an activist group funded by the White House, showed a slick promotional video it is using to raise awareness of the entitlements among America's ballooning Latin American population - an important target group.

"It's about kids' futures," said the council's president, Rebeca Nieves-Huffman, explaining the aspirational, empowering message.

Whether such pitches resonate with parents will determine whether choice and private tutoring represent a viable blueprint for the future or excess ideological zeal.

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