- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 8, 2002

A task force's recommendations that the D.C. Board of Education change the rules governing out-of-boundary transfers has some parents nervous and rightly so. If the board implements the changes, principals would be granted carte blanche authority to essentially turn public schools into private schools, denying underserved children challenging academic opportunities and the right to a free and appropriate education.
The task force began its work after parents spent days in the cold to enroll their children in the new Oyster Bilingual School. Other schools in Northwest, including Wilson High and its feeder junior high school, Deal, get numerous requests from out-of-boundary families, too. But, since Oyster is an immersion program and is located in the District's first new school building in 20 years, its popularity has grown tremendously. Fortunately, Superintendent Paul Vance has proposed funding for another such program in his fiscal 2004 budget. Still, while the superintendent's move is a smart one, it won't change the chief reason why parents seek transfers: Public schools in white Northwest neighborhoods are better than schools in mostly black Southeast.
The task force reinforces that reality in its five-page proposal. Currently, as in the past, a mother who lives, say, on Capitol Hill can enroll her child in an elementary school in Georgetown without many questions being asked. But the task force, instead of making it easier for parents to place their children in their public school of choice, particularly children in failing schools, proposes toughening the requirements.
It is an odious proposal. The recommendations include restricting the number of students in all public schools and establishing lotteries for transfer students, instead of the first-come, first-accepted open policy that currently, and rightly, is now in place. Also, siblings would automatically be granted priority over other applicants as if birthright entitles such a public-school privilege. Also, applicants could be rejected if a child who is applying for a transfer to a high school and was, for instance, suspended in grade school for a scuffle on the playground. Another troubling aspect of the proposal calls for prescreening applicants, a practice heretofore exercised only at private and religious schools. The D.C. task force proposes strict guidelines that permit individual principals to deny acceptance based on academic standing. Consider how those exclusionary rules would play out in this practical situation: An eighth-grade student's grades suffered because she couldn't quite juggle the responsibilities of extracurricular activities and schooling; the principal would be permitted considerable leeway, indeed the rules encourage the principal to reject the girl's application out of hand.
It's certainly reasonable to expect a child applying for entrance into an special arts or magnet school to be predisposed to certain arts-related curriculum and have mastered certain skills. But it's outrageous and discriminatory to exclude a child from attending a traditional public school based on academic achievement or a grade-point average.
It was obvious during a recent school board hearing that some board members are uncomfortable with the stringent rules recommended by the task force. And, the board should definitely continue to encourage and reinforce school-based management as it continues the long road toward school reform. However, allowing such elitist rules as those put forth by the task force would leave lots of children behind, and perhaps create legal vulnerabilities where there now are none.
To be sure, the thought of parents camping out at other schools, as they did at Oyster, is unsightly. However, the Oyster situation is an anomaly, not the norm. In fact, most of the city's schools are not blanketed with out-of-boundary transfer requests. Most grade-school children walk to their neighborhood schools, as do many middle-school students. Parents have always considered out-of-boundary high schools for their children. Some do so because of academic offerings, and many others do so because of athletic programs. That is their right. That is their choice.
Again, it is indeed encouraging to know that the superintendent is proposing replicating Oyster's popular bilingual program and bolstering foreign-language programs systemwide. His budget also includes funds to establish advanced-placement programs at several high schools, which is one of the chief academic attractions at Wilson High. The school system has the capacity to institute all these reforms and a lot more.
However, granting carte blanche authority to a principal to shutter the doors of a traditional public school is unthinkable. Parents have the legal right to send their children to the public school of their choice. The No Child Left Behind initiative, signed into law this year, reinforces that right, mandating that school systems accommodate transfers to parents whose children are trapped in failing schools. This summer, Superintendent Vance said the school system is prepared to accommodate up to 10,000 such students.
The task force clearly understood the legal consequences of its Orval Faubus-like stance. "These provisions," the task force writes in its closing, "shall not be construed as limiting restricting the right of any student to receive a free and appropriate education under applicable,"
Well, that is precisely what would occur if the D.C. Board of Education adopted the recommendations. The board should thank the task force for its hard work, then pitch its recommendations into the circular file. While lotteries might be appropriate for certain magnet and special programs, first-come, first-served is the right and just way to go.

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