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Open New Public Schools in Low-Income Neighborhoods
Increase the supply of high-quality public schools in educationally underserved communities.
Most low-income communities lack high-quality public schools. The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) was designed to change that by requiring schools to make adequate yearly progress toward clear-cut goals, “or else.”
The trouble is, it can take seven years for the full weight of “or else” to be felt and increasingly the evidence shows that states and school districts often flinch when it’s time to really make tough changes in low-performing schools. In any event, seven years is a long time to ask parents and children to wait. Moreover, school improvement is an inescapably messy and uncertain endeavor: Even when everything goes right, efforts to turn low-performing schools around fail as often as they succeed.
The net result is that a child can attend a substandard elementary school from Grades 1–6 and “graduate” to an equally low-performing middle school before his or her elementary school is closed, reconstituted, or restaffed under the provisions of NCLB.
Congress built an escape hatch into the law to handle this eventuality: If a public school fails to make adequate progress for three consecutive years, its students have the right to transfer to better public schools. That right, however, is of little use to families who live in communities with few, if any, better schools to turn to. Nationwide, only about 2 percent of students who can transfer out of a low-performing school under NCLB actually do so. Sometimes the reason is school district foot-dragging on transfers. Other times it is parental inertia, unfamiliarity with NCLB’s transfer provisions, or a child’s refusal to part with friends. But many times the reason is an absence of worthwhile alternatives.
When better options do exist in low-income neighborhoods, they are often public charter schools. Although these schools are not uniformly outstanding, many are and many more will be because charter school authorizing is improving rapidly. Washington now spends $214 million a year through its Public Charter Schools Program (PCSP) on competitive grants to states for charter school planning, design, and implementation. It also has a separate $36 million credit enhancement fund to help charter schools secure facilities and make capital improvements.
Apart from the fact that some students can transfer to charter schools under NCLB and that charter schools must meet NCLB’s yearly progress mandates, NCLB and PCSP exist in separate bureaucratic stovepipes. President Bush recently proposed changes to NCLB that would make it easier for school districts to convert chronically low performing schools into charter schools, but that idea faces uncertain prospects in the Democrat controlled Congress.
Our next president has a golden opportunity to enhance both NCLB and the PCSP by bringing the two closer together. Here is how it would work: Washington should increase spending on new school creation through the PCSP by $250 million annually—a billion dollars over four years—and put the new money in a separate new-school-creation fund aligned with NCLB. That money would be used to create new public schools of choice in educationally underserved communities—an unprecedented effort to build a more robust supply of such schools for kids who need them. Funds would be allocated to communities based on poverty and the percentage of students exercising their right under NCLB to transfer to better public schools, with communities with low percentages getting more money and those with higher percentages getting less.
These schools would not have to be traditional charter schools. In addition to nonprofit organizations and community institutions, school districts and teachers unions themselves could obtain funds to open schools by meeting the same basic criteria required by PCSP. In addition, cities pursing aggressive programs to open new public schools of choice other than charter schools, such as New York, would also be eligible for funding. In an important break from current PCSP policy, these funds could also be used for facilities, a costly undertaking in many locales and a key obstacle to new school creation.
The new schools would be funded under existing state charter school provisions or through other equitable state and local arrangements. States with a poor record of charter school oversight, with charter school laws that do not allow for multiple sponsors of such schools, or that place arbitrary limits on the number of such schools would be ineligible for funding.
School choice is controversial in part because it shifts the power to decide where children go to school from established education interests to parents. These interests will naturally resist any effort to diminish their power. On the other hand, parents lacking good educational choices, especially those who are poor and/or non-white, will welcome efforts to enhance educational options in their communities. The conflict between disadvantaged parents and established education interests is one of the strongest tensions in American politics today.
Our proposal has appeal for both parties. For Democrats, it offers a credible position on school choice and low-performing schools that does not involve vouchers or privatization. For Republicans, it offers a form of choice that is more politically palatable and likely to serve more students than vouchers. For both parties, it offers a solution to one of NCLB’s most obvious shortcomings.