Children who are still left behind

18th April 2003 at 01:00

George Bush promised extra tuition and support for pupils at the worst schools. But most have yet to see it, Stephen Phillips reports

President Bush's ambitious plan to give free extra-curricular coaching to students at America's worst schools appears to have stalled because of bureaucratic hurdles, inadequate funding and the indifference of parents.

The No Child Left Behind Act, introduced last September, calls for pupils at languishing schools to be offered subsidised tuition from private providers, teachers at other schools or faith organisations.

But problems compiling lists of failing schools and vetting tutors have meant so-called "supplemental educational services" have failed to get off the ground in many states.

Three-quarters of 23 state education departments polled by the social welfare lobby group, Acorn, in December had yet to implement them. Most are making progress, but many of the neediest students are not expected to get access to the catch-up classes until September.

The initiative is part of the Act's two-pronged effort to help children trapped in rundown schools.

Alternatively, they may transfer to better schools at failing schools' expense. Supporters say the measures ensure pupils' education isn't sacrificed while weak schools pull their socks up using extra funding. But critics say such measures effectively abandon weaker schools, while dragging down better ones, inundated by ill-prepared students.

The Bush administration has accused local education chiefs, many of whom disagree with its agenda for schools, of dragging their feet, but local officials have complained that the White House has set an unrealistic pace for reform. "There's been uneven implementation," said a US education department spokeswoman, professing "disappointment (with) some states' actions".

However, even where schools have set up tuition, take-up is often poor.

Georgia's scheme in Atlanta is massively undersubscribed, despite families being notified many times, officials said.

Parents of eligible kids typically come from the poorest and least educated groups themselves, explained Rachel Burrows of Acorn's legislative representative.

The stipulation that extra lessons cannot be given by teachers at schools deemed failing means students must travel off-site to get tuition, which compounds the problem. Parents are responsible for getting their children to the tuition site and many may not see why they should. Thomas Murphy, of Connecticut's education department, which has yet to roll out tutoring, said: "The premise that every parent is in a position to recognise the value of these services ... is not necessarily accurate."

Education authorities are also reluctant to pay for new services amid tight budgets. Mr Murphy said that Connecticut was "unlikely" to be able to fund tuition for all 2,000 eligible local pupils this September because of a projected $1bn deficit in state coffers.

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