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California Schools Could Lose Aid over 'No Child' Law

California is under pressure to provide students at low-performing schools in its largest school districts with more options for transferring out. Above, a new school under construction in Maywood, Calif., part of the L.A. school district.
David McNew
Getty News Images
California is under pressure to provide students at low-performing schools in its largest school districts with more options for transferring out. Above, a new school under construction in Maywood, Calif., part of the L.A. school district.

This week, the U.S. Department of Education threatened to withhold millions of dollars in federal school aid from California because the state has failed to help students transfer out of low-performing schools.

The No Child Left Behind Law requires that students in such schools be given the option of transferring elsewhere. But nationwide, some 4 million students eligible for such transfers did not do so, in many cases because there was no place for them to go.

Getting the School District's Attention

In Los Angeles, some 250,000 students were eligible for transfers, but only a small percentage actually switched schools. Among those who didn't is Yolanda Decatur's 8-year-old son, Cameron.

Like many children in Los Angeles, Yolanda Decatur's three sons attend year-round schools -- a byproduct of crowding in the 800,000-student district. By 6:30 a.m. on a typical school day, Decatur has three bowls of milk and a box of Cap'n Crunch waiting on the kitchen table of her home.

Kyron, 5, is still in pajamas, watching Sesame Street. Cameron and Sexton Jr., 14, are dressed. Both boys have struggled academically, Decatur says, but it's 8-year-old Cameron who's having the most trouble at West Athens Elementary School.

"He goes through his tantrums," she says, adding that the school is too crowded to give her son the one-on-one attention he needs. "There's too many kids."

But it's not just the crowding. Decatur says that Cameron's teachers seem to have given up on him.

Last fall, she had nearly lost all hope of getting the school district to pay attention to Cameron's case. Then, John Mancino walked into the fast-food restaurant in south central Los Angeles where Decatur works full time.

Mancino, a management consultant by profession, with children of his own, says he became an activist because he hates the way the Los Angeles Unified School District bureaucracy deals with parents who request transfers.

"A lot of them have given up," he says. "They don't think they can beat the system. They've basically thrown the towel in."

Few Transfer Options for Students

Mancino's organization -- the Coalition on Urban Renewal and Education -- has filed a complaint with the district and the state. It accuses school officials of withholding information from parents about the district's transfer policies and discouraging them from even applying.

"According to the law, NCLB [No Child Left Behind], they're supposed to make it very clear and explain it in simple, easy-to-understand terms, and they're not doing that," Mancino says. The district, he says, is "burying" the information about transfers "to get around the requirements of No Child Left Behind."

Mancino says about one-third of the district's students were eligible for transfers this past school year, but only 527 students actually did so.

The school district has dismissed Mancino's complaint.

"We have a massive program of transfer of students throughout this district," says L.A. school district superintendent Roy Romer.

Urging Parents to Be Patient

The L.A. school district has done everything possible to give parents options, Romer says, but it simply doesn't have the room for all of those students to transfer.

"We're 160,000 seats short. Where do you transfer to?" he says. "Give us some time. We'll have new buildings built. We're building them now."

Romer says the district is building 160 new schools at a cost of $19 billion to deal with the crowding. But, he adds, parents like Decatur have to be patient.

"I've got to say to that parent, 'We are making more change in the right direction than any other urban school district in California,'" Romer says. "You can't turn one of these things around in a month, a year or five years. It takes 10 to 12 years to do it."

That's not good enough for Yolanda Decatur.

"Tell my son, you look in his face and tell him he that he has to wait for a better school," she says.

She says parents like her feel that suing the school district will force it to act faster. "We have these rights to demand better schools for our children," she says.

Federal Funds at Stake

There is no lawsuit yet, but there will be soon, says Clint Bolick, of the Phoenix-based Alliance for School Choice.

Bolick, a longtime advocate of vouchers and school choice, is working with Mancino and his organization to help parents in Los Angeles. He says he's convinced that the threat of a lawsuit will force U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings to deal with the problem.

"If she wants school districts to comply with the law, she has got to make an example out of a school district that is in blatant non-compliance, and she could not find a better example than the Los Angeles Unified School District," Bolick says. "She's offered an awful lot of waivers to school districts to get out of from the requirements of the law, and she's threatened a great deal. But so far, she has not made good on a single threat."

Chris Doherty of the U.S. Education Department strongly disagrees.

"This secretary has made clear that she's unsatisfied with what we're seeing across the country, and she's taking strong steps to bring those numbers up to where we want them to be," Doherty says.

Doherty has been monitoring parents' complaints in Los Angeles and across the country.

Spellings "has made California aware that she's following this extremely closely," he says. "She's made every state superintendent aware that she's poised to take action, including withholding funds from noncompliant districts and states, if need be."

In an unprecedented move, Spellings has given California six weeks to come up with a plan that would allow students in failing schools throughout the state to transfer to a better school this fall.

If the state does not submit a plan that Spellings deems adequate, Doherty says the education secretary will withhold part of the $700 million California is due to receive this fall in federal Title I funds, which are earmarked for high-poverty schools. And that, department officials say, is no empty threat.

California officials told NPR that what the U.S. Department of Education is asking for is going to be a logistical nightmare: Every failing school -- and every school district -- where parents have tried, unsuccessfully, to transfer their children out now faces a six-week deadline to make sure those students find a new school.

California officials said lawyers for the state will likely examine the letter from Washington to see whether they can challenge the Aug. 15 deadline, because under No Child Left Behind, there is supposed to be a process in place that gives states time to review and appeal any complaint or lawsuit. This process now appears to be out the window.

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