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20th August

First Published in The New York Sun, August 20, 2004

By Andrew Wolf

 Schools Chancellor Joel Klein has come under a lot of criticism from editorial writers on the right regarding his decision to finesse the school-transfer provisions of the No Child Left Behind law. From the left, he’s being pressured to comply by the City Council Education Committee chairwoman, Eva Moskowitz. 

    No one has been more critical of Mr. Klein than I. But on this issue I believe that Mr. Klein is correct. He has shown great courage by changing course. 
    Last year, the Department of Education spent $20 million to transport more than 7,000 students whose parents demanded NCLB transfers. This enormous expenditure is just the tip of the iceberg. School transportation is the gift that keeps on giving. If we kept last year’s policy in place, the annual tab could reach $100 million. 

    There is no educational benefit derived from riding on a bus.Moreover,I question whether the children moved into new schools really got a better education. 

    Schools are defined as “failing” when one subgroup within the school fails to achieve “annual yearly progress.”These groups can be as esoteric as “Asian/Special Education/English Language Learners.” But should that subgroup not meet its target, the entire school is labeled as failing, and all of the children are eligible to request transfers. Each year the bar is set higher, so by the 2013-14 school year every child must be performing at grade level. Since we live on a planet inhabited by human beings, this goal won’t be reached. 

    Some schools are on the list because more than 5% of the students in a subgroup or the school as a whole weren’t tested. In some cases, even if each one of the children who didn’t take the test were counted as a zero and the school still would have met its target, the school is still considered to be failing, and students permitted to transfer out. 

    This “all or nothing” standard ensures that every school, with the exception of specialized schools with selective admission criteria, such as Stuyvesant or Bronx Science, will be a failing school in less than a decade. Where will we ship the students to then? 

    And what of the receiving schools? Are they better than the schools that the transferred students come from? In many cases, no. Few schools are realistic candidates to accept transfers. Most middle schools are already on the failing list. Many others are so grossly overcrowded that it would be irresponsible to enroll more students. But the federal government does not accept overcrowding as an excuse that precludes transfers. 

    Confronted with this dilemma last year, Mr. Klein made some poor choices. He decided to allow transfers, one third of the total, into “failing” schools located in middle-class communities not eligible for NCLB funding.That money only goes to schools with a certain percentage of children who qualify for free lunch. 
    In these cases,the only difference between the child’s new school and old school is the income level of the parents. In one north-Bronx school, failing in both reading and math, three-quarters are minorities and 64% of the students qualify for free lunch.That is five points below the poverty threshold. It was forced to accept NCLB transferees, including one child who spent more than three hours each day riding a bus from Queens. 

    Because New York City is considered one huge school district, the child from Queens could be transferred all the way to the Bronx. But a child in a failing school in the northeast Bronx community of Baychester has no right to transfer to a high-performing school in Pelham Manor, five minutes away. 

    Sending at-risk children to troubled schools with fewer resources turned out to be a formula for disaster.According to the New York State Education Department, allowing children to transfer to these failing “non-Title I” schools was at the chancellor’s discretion. 

    It is worthy of note that under the law, parents can only demand transfers out of schools designated as eligible for Title I funds. Children at “failing” non-Title I schools, however, have no avenue of escape. 

    Unfortunately, no hard data have been kept to track the progress of these children, but there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that the transfers were disastrous.Take the case of an already troubled, overcrowded middle school in Throggs Neck, forced to accept 85 NCLB students. By the middle of the school year and after untold visits by local police to break up fights, the school was so out of control that the principal quit in frustration. 

    James Vacca, the district manager of the local Community Board, reports that a significant number of families have moved from the area to distant suburbs because they lost confidence in the viability of the school.That’s one statistic you won’t find on the Department of Education Web site. 

    Last year, such cities such as Chicago and Los Angeles paid lip service to the transfer provision of the NCLB law. Mr. Klein has decided to follow their lead, a refreshing change for a chancellor who rarely seemed willing to admit error and change course.

© 2004 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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