- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 18, 2002

President Bush's goal of bolstering public-school choice is being undercut by bureaucrats. From the Department of Education to state education officials to local school districts. Reactionary teachers' unions add to the lack of progress. Unfortunately for children locked into poorly performing schools, the status quo signifies a loss of hope and opportunity.
Mr. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act in January, but the Department of Education didn't release its preliminary guidelines for implementing public-school choice until mid-June, making it difficult to offer choice to students and prepare for the school year simultaneously.
In the District, which has about 68,000 students,15 schools with 10,000 students were identified as poorly performing. But there are only 1,000 seats available for students in the designated better schools. Parents in the District had less than a week to sign up for their childrens' transfer. This, at a time when many residents are away on vacation. Tomorrow is the last day to sign up for eligible students' transfer.
It is also disturbing that charter schools, a critical element of public-school choice, were not designated as better schools, even though many are have equal or better test scores than the public schools on the list. Parents can still send children to charter schools, but the District isn't required to foot the bill for transportation.
In Prince George's County, 10 schools with 6,000 students were identified as low performing. The county notified parents of their option to transfer their children in early July, and set a July 19 deadline to sign up for re-enrollment. Parents requested transfers for 656 students, but there are seats for only 363. Students from the neediest areas that attend the poorest performing schools will be given first priority for transfers.
The county's logistical difficulties are partly due to Maryland's long-standing reticence to launch school-choice programs. If these had been in place earlier, the task wouldn't be so difficult now. Recalcitrant teachers' unions are partly to blame for Maryland's lethargy.
New York City, meanwhile, has had a public-school choice program in place for several years. This spring, the city began to offer choice options to qualified students even though the Department of Education had not yet released its preliminary guidelines and the state had not identified which schools were officially designated as poorly performing. Since New York City schools are overcrowded, the logistical problems will surely be daunting, despite the city's early start.
Many New York City schools, both well and poorly performing, are at 130 percent capacity. The number of eligible students for transfers will far outweigh the number of seats available. But perhaps New York City's problems would have been ameliorated if it had more charter schools. For a student body of about 1.1 million, New York City has only 19 charter schools.
Clearly, the champions of school choice have sizable challenges ahead, including outvoicing unions and the National PTA on such issues as vouchers. More importantly, public officials at federal, state and local levels must coordinate more closely. Inefficiency at one end rigs the system for failure. With the nation's future hanging in the balance, there is too much at stake for that.

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