School districts worry about letting kids leave failing schools

The No Child Left Behind Act requires school districts to allow children in persistently failing schools to transfer to better (public) schools and to pay the transportation costs for those students to reach their new schools. For thousands of schools, that provision takes effect in September. Well-run districts are already developing plans for complying with this provision but in the process they're encountering two issues they've thus far managed to avoid: integration and competition. Both issues are being played out in Montgomery County, Maryland, an enormous school district in the suburbs of Washington, DC which includes some of the nation's most exclusive zip codes as well as more diverse urban areas, a district that has lately been struggling with its own widening achievement gap.

The Montgomery County school system has developed a plan that gives parents in 10 faltering schools the ability to transfer their children to affluent, high-achieving schools that are nearby and have room for more students. The reactions to this plan have been telling. Some parents whose children attend the high-achieving schools are bristling at the news that students from other neighborhoods might be bused in, according to Washington Post reporter Brigid Schulte. The vice president of the school board commented that "I hate to think people are socioeconomically biased, but I think there is some prejudice in this county." School staff seem more optimistic. One principal whose school has been designated to take about 45 transfers said that teachers were concerned about how it might affect their test scores, although generally upbeat and feeling up to the challenge of the new students. Meanwhile, Superintendent Jerry Weast, who has been pumping millions of dollars into the failing schools in an attempt to turn them around, is doing his best to convince parents to keep their kids in those schools. But not everyone in the district seems convinced that giving parents the ability to send their children to the best possible school should be the goal, whatever the federal law says. One board member complained "With the amount of money we're putting into those schools, we shouldn't have to be moving kids around." Whether parents will prefer to keep their children in the low-achieving schools, some of which have such bells and whistles as health clinics, after-school programs, and adult literacy classes, or send their kids to the higher-achieving school up the road, is yet to be seen.

"Educators Prepare, Worry over Effect of Transfer Law," by Brigid Schulte, The Washington Post, May 13, 2002

"For Pupils, A Chance to Transfer Up," by Brigid Schulte, The Washington Post, May 10, 2002