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1st October

First Published in The New York Sun, October 1, 2003

By Andrew Wolf

Poor children are on buses for hours, traveling between distant corners of the city in search of a better school. It’s a high price to pay for a good education. But when they arrive at their destination, are they getting what they bargained for? The answer is no. These children are victims of a perfect storm of bureaucratic incompetence: an ill-conceived federal law, administered in a ham-handed way by an insensitive state agency, implemented by clueless educrats here in the city. 

    The much-heralded No Child Left Behind law seems to be leaving not just these children on the bus, but it possibly is diminishing the educational opportunities of thousands of other children as well. Those children have no option to leave their schools, despite the fact that they attend schools that are “failing” when measured by the same criteria that allowed the other children to transfer. 
    As implemented by the city, a new system of educational apartheid has been created in New York, one that divides children not by race but by economics. Once again, schools in New York’s outer-borough, middle-class communities are put at risk. This time, the buck cannot be passed to an unelected Board of Education. We wanted accountability, and now we have it. The blame for the disastrous results can be now laid squarely at the feet of Mayor Bloomberg. He sits at the place where the final and most egregious mistakes have been made — the Tweed Courthouse. 

    The school transfer provisions of the No Child Left Behind law are poorly conceived. The definition of “failing” schools is left largely to the states, which have widely varied interpretations of failure. 

    The law also mandates that the poor performance of one subgroup — that is, divisions by race, gender, special education status, or English language learning status — be applied to the entire school. For instance, a school that comes up short if a small group of, say, English language learners fails to meet their target, is penalized by being branded as a total “failure.” All the children in that school are eligible to transfer out, even from the groups that are doing well. 

    This is one of the inane aspects of the law. Why should the draconian step of allowing a transfer, which precipitates huge transportation expenditures, be offered to a child that is doing just fine where he or she is? Why does the federal government project the problems of some onto all? 

    This is the point where the state takes over. Each state sets its own standards, and New York State’s education department has been particularly tough in setting goals, much tougher, it appears, than most, if not all, other states.Tough is usually a good thing, but in this case it means causing enormous systemwide disruption to already troubled urban school systems. 

    The “good” schools are sagging under the weight of the transferees, and the troubled schools sink deeper as their best and most motivated students depart. 

    Here is where Mr. Bloomberg — through his Department of Education — comes in. The state has established two parallel lists of “failing” schools. One list is for Title I schools, those designated as having poverty status because of the percentage of children eligible for free or reduced rate lunch. The other list, Schools Requiring Academic Progress, only includes non-Title I schools, located for the most part in middle-class areas.The criteria established for a school’s inclusion on either list is identical. The only difference is the incomes of the parents of the children in the schools. 

    The No Child Left Behind Law only benefits children in Title I schools. Children in the schools on the Title I failing list have the right to transfer out, or get other services. Children in non-Title I schools, no matter how badly the school may be doing, or how poor a family that child comes from, have no such rights. 
    A gray area in the law is whether a child from a failing Title I school can transfer into a failing non-Title I school. When this point was raised with a spokesperson for the State Department of Education, Jonathan Burman, last month, his interpretation was clear: The answer is no. That certainly was the intent of the law. 
    But Ira Schwartz of the state Education Department’s school accountability office maintains that his department left the final decision to the local authorities, in this case Schools Chancellor Joel Klein.While the non-
Title I list was made public just this year, a similar list was made available to the Department of Education last year. It was Mr. Klein’s decision to open up the failing non-Title I schools to students transferring from similarly failing Title I schools. 

    There are grave implications for some of the intake schools as a result of the chancellor’s — and by extension, the mayor’s — action. Fifty neighborhood students on the waiting list for the high school portion of the Riverdale/Kingsbridge Academy were turned away, but room was found for more than 30 NCLB transfers, despite the fact that their new school has been cited for deficiencies in both reading and math. 
    No school has been hurt as much as IS 192 in Throggs Neck. It’s a diverse school — onethird of the students are white, one-third black, and one-third Hispanic — on the “failing list” for poor math performance.To complicate matters, a new principal has just taken charge. He was greeted with 100 NCLB transferees, grossly overcrowding the 1,400-student school. Despite these concerns, the school was directed to accept the flood of new students from outside the community, unaware that they were arriving at another failing school. 

    Similar concerns were raised to the mayor at a meeting of the Woodlawn Taxpayers Association last month, about yet another failing school forced to accept NCLB transfers, PS 19. 

    Riverdale, Woodlawn, and Throggs Neck are among the few Bronx communities that Mr. Bloomberg won in the last election. One has to wonder what political skills were at play when a decision was made that seems to hurt so many while benefiting none.

© 2003 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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