New federal school law poses mammoth task
The prospect that families from low-income, low-performing public schools in Hawai'i may start clamoring for transfers when school starts this fall is only the tip of massive change coming to our statewide school system under President Bush's new No Child Left Behind law.
The law fundamentally changes the way our schools will operate.
And while local school officials are scrambling to meet the still-murky requirements of the law, it appears clear that Hawai'i like many states will be unable to meet every requirement and deadline.
If Washington shows flexibility and understanding that each state and each district pose its own set of problems, that may not be a major problem.
But there is the danger that this onrushing locomotive may do more to destroy our current system of public education than to help it.
And because the sweeping requirements imposed by the law come with relatively little support, local lawmakers will have to come up with more money for public education and to authorize greater flexibility in how that money is spent.
Hawai'i school officials are doing their level-best to meet the requirements of the No Child Left Behind act. As educators, how could they not?
But the devilish details are daunting.
For instance, local officials say they were unaware until this week that one of the first provisions of the law would kick in this fall as schools are rung back into session.
The law focuses on so-called "low-performing" schools, that is, schools that are failing to make adequate progress toward meeting state standards. Schools that fit that category and are designated as high-poverty schools based on the number of children receiving free or reduced-cost lunches immediately trigger the first of four tiers of "corrective action" designed to force change.
We had about 85 at last count.
That first tier includes offering families the choice of transferring to another school. And money from their federal low-income grants (Title 1 grants) must be used to pay transportation costs.
As Education Writer Jennifer Hiller reported, this presents a host of problems:
- When would the students be allowed to opt for a transfer? At the beginning of the year, or at any time they feel dissatisfied? Allowing transfer at any time would create chaos.
- And what happens if large groups of students decide to move? If the number of free- or reduced-lunch students falls below 45 percent, the Title 1 designation and the federal money that comes with it disappear. Again, chaos.
- And how will the "receiving" school deal with an influx of new students with special learning needs?
Well, you get the picture.
And imagine, the school-transfer headache is only the first of four levels of corrective action, each level more expensive and potentially damaging to the public education mission.
If a school fails to make satisfactory progress toward state standards for four years (and remember a bunch of them are already in Year One), the law calls for a school takeover, privatization or conversion into a charter school.
There are heavy new requirements imposed on the district as well. For instance, at the start of the school year each school (not just to poor-performing or poverty schools, but each school) must have a complex and detailed "report card" ready for parents on school performance and student achievement, broken down in great detail as to gender, ethnicity, English proficiency and other factors.
There is no way Hawai'i will be completely ready for this requirement.
Local school officials are overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task ahead, but sincerely committed to doing the best.
But as one looks at the enormousness of the task ahead, one cannot help but wonder if the long-term effect will be less "No Child Left Behind" than a public school system abandoned by all but the hopeless and those who have nowhere else to go.