Schools must offer school choice and tutoring, say federal officials

July 22, 2014

Yesterday, the AP announced that Superintendent Dorn’s latest effort to avoid the consequences of losing Washington’s waiver from the federal education law, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), has failed. Federal officials have dismissed the arguments of Superintendent Dorn, saying it is beneficial for parents to be told they have the right to school choice and tutoring under the law.  For a timeline of the events leading to Washington’s waiver loss, see my post here. Other posts about this are here and here

This means that school choice has arrived in Washington state. Parents with a child attending a school labelled as “needs to improve” under NCLB will be offered free transportation to a better school.  If all schools in a district have this label, then NCLB requires districts to form cooperative agreements to allow parents to send their child to a better school outside their district. See NCLB, Section 1116 (a) (11). Parents must also be notified of their right to free tutoring for their child.

School officials are wringing their hands, claiming that no school in Washington will be labelled non-failing under NCLB. This argument is flawed, because it suggests that NCLB evaluates schools on a strictly binary scale---failing or non-failing----and that parents cannot understand the complexities of NCLB.

NCLB does not have a binary scale and parents can figure this out.

Under NCLB, passed in 2001, schools are required to make steady progress towards teaching nearly all students to pass the state tests in reading and math by 2014.  NCLB provides a system of increasing financial and technical supports and interventions for schools that fail to make this steady progress. NCLB requires states to collect and report school passing rates of students in every demographic and need category. Schools that do not make steady progress for two years are categorized as “in need of improvement,” then after another year of not making steady progress as “in corrective action,” and after another year of not making steady progress as in “restructuring.” NCLB provides parents with a wealth of information on school performance so it is possible for parents to decide if NCLB fairly categorizes their school, or not.

Why not offer school choice to parents?  Some parents will decide the NCLB label unfairly classifies their school, and will not make any change. But some parents will decide otherwise. Why shouldn’t they be able to choose a school that is better for their child?

According to the State Board of Education’s School Achievement Index, 136,167 students in Washington are assigned to 279 failing schools, known as Priority (115 schools)and Focus (164 schools). Yet school officials, from Washington D.C. to Olympia to Seattle, continue to pursue top-down improvement efforts, tinkering here and there at the edges of school policy. Schools continue to be hamstrung by existing rules and restrictions and are given mountains of new paperwork requirements. 

Andrew Coulson, an expert on school accountability at CATO says:

"True accountability comes not from top-down regulations but from parents financially empowered to exit schools that fail to meet their child’s needs. Parental choice, coupled with freedom for educators, creates the incentives and opportunities that spur quality. The compelled conformity fostered by centralized standards and tests stifles the very diversity that gives consumer choice its value."

Many parents in Washington will soon receive notices that the school their child attends is in one or another of NCLB’s categories of needing improvement. Some parents will look into the numbers and decide their child is learning just fine, despite the school’s NCLB label. Other parents will learn their child is not learning as he should be and will decide to send their child to a school that better serves him. NCLB offers these parents school choice and free tutoring, and gives parents the means to help their children do better in school this coming school year.