Three C's of school reform

Tuesday, January 28, 2003

By Marc Fey

A year ago this month, President Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act amid criticism by both liberals and conservatives. I too was a bit cynical about how effective it would be. But one year later, our schoolchildren and their parents are better off. The reason? Finally, there is a crack in the wall that has kept parents out of the decision-making process of their child's education.

Now the "C" word -- choice -- is front and center. We now have before us the 3 C's of school reform: choice, confrontation and 'ccountability. Two significant outcomes have resulted. First, the new law empowers parents whose kids are trapped in poor schools by giving them a say in what school their child attends. In other words, they get to choose a better school. And second, No Child Left Behind confronts state and local educators with accountability requirements for student achievement.

The challenge before you and me -- as parents and citizens -- is this: Will we hold state educators accountable?

It's been hard for parents to understand what the new law means. In a nutshell, it does three things: Every child must demonstrate proficiency in math, reading and science, states must track subgroups of students (like minority) and, most importantly, states are held responsible for results.

On average only 40 percent of our kids demonstrate proficiency. Poor and minority students are far below that. The kicker, of course, is that we measure progress, or lack of it, and keep a record. So where schools don't show improvement, these schools are taken over or shut down. Sounds to me like the best of capitalism: shut down what doesn't work.

It is true the law pertains to a relatively small percentage of families. However, the Supreme Court's decision in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris in July, which ruled in favor of the use of school vouchers in Cleveland schools, opened the door for broad school choice programs. That makes the school choice in No Child Left Behind a symbolic first step toward choice for all families. You can bet there is a confrontation growing -- between educators who are protecting their power base and parents like you and me who want our kids in schools that produce results.

Some school districts are not afraid of the changes. Colorado's District 11 is recognizing this as an opportunity to empower parents in the decision-making process. The district leadership formed a committee of parents who drafted a letter detailing the options available to parents. Then the letter was translated into six languages and sent to families in the district. Every family received their first choice.

On the other hand, Illinois is fast becoming an example of status quo at its worst. In Chicago, only 29,000 of the 124,000 eligible students were offered the option to move. A recent proposal drafted by school board staffers and teachers' union officials would freeze the pass rate at 40 percent for three years, an arrogant strategy designed to wait out the law. In the meantime, you and I as parents are expected to just keep putting our kids on the bus, no questions asked.

This resistance by many education leaders is being documented, as a recent Washington Post article shows ("States Worry New Law Sets Schools Up to Fail"). What is their fear? That these test scores would label most schools poor performers. When has 40 percent proficiency -- for a student, an athlete, an employee -- ever been anything but failing?

Education Secretary Rod Paige recently urged educators to "understand that change begins with accepting the truth -- the truth that we can do better." I say, we must do better. Solving our education problems is about leadership. Paige knows this. In a public challenge last October he chastised uncooperative state school chiefs for dragging their feet. It's time that parents do the same: hold our state education leaders accountable, giving school choice first to our children who need it the most -- the ones trapped in failing schools -- and eventually to every family in America.

Marc Fey is an education policy analyst at Focus on the Family.

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