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WebMemo #561 on Education

September 3, 2004

What Parents Should Know for Back to School

By

As the summer winds down, children everywhere race to finish their summer reading assignments and parents begin their search for new notebooks, bigger backpacks, and maybe even better schools.

Two years after the enactment of the No Child Left Behind Act parents have access to more information about the quality of public schools than ever before. No Child Left Behind's reporting requirements make schools more accountable to parents. Schools must issue certain specific information about achievement in reading and math, and schools that persistently fail to educate children at grade level must offer new options, such as tutoring and school choice. Armed with information and empowered by this new authority, parents are in a better position than ever before to choose where their children attend school.

No Child Left Behind requires every state to release information about each of its schools and school districts annually. These reports must include data about student academic achievement on state reading and math tests, graduation rates, teacher qualifications, and whether or not a school has been identified as a "needs improvement" school. Each state sets adequate yearly progress (AYP) goals for its schools that must be met at the school-wide level and by specific student subgroups. States have the freedom to set their own AYP standards, tests, and targets, which they must do for reading proficiency, English acquisition, and mathematics.

With these targets comes accountability for results. Schools that fail to meet their improvement targets for two consecutive years are classified as 'needing improvement;' Their districts must provide transportation for eligible students to attend another public school in the district that is achieving its academic objectives. Parents of children at these underperforming schools may choose to send their children to any public school in the district-even a charter school.

But that's not the end of the story. After a school is classified as 'needing improvement,' it must develop its own plan to substantially improve within two years. And if a school falls short of the targets for three consecutive years, it must provide supplemental services such as tutoring and summer school to any low-income students whom it serves, in addition to continuing to offer public school choice to all of its students. Parents may choose from a list of state-approved tutoring services, including such private providers as Sylvan Learning Systems, Kaplan K12 Learning Services, and Princeton Review.

But wait, there's more: If, after five consecutive years, a school is still failing to meet its improvement requirements, it must be restructured and reopened as a charter school or accept a new management team-perhaps a private operator.

Parents can access information about schools' progress in several ways. The U.S. Department of Education recently teamed up with the Broad Foundation, the National Center for Education Accountability, and Standard and Poor's to create an easy-to-use website-www.SchoolResults.org-where parents can find information about their child's school, district, and state. On this website, a parent can compare the status and progress of schools within his or her district and across the state, as well as access detailed information about each state's specific AYP standards and action plans.

Just for the Kids has a similar feature on its website-www.just4kids.org-where parents can find data about their child's school and information about states' best practices studies. Parents can also visit the Heritage Foundation's one-stop-shopping web source for information about educational choice policies. This information is an especially important tool for parents of children in schools that need improvement to help them make the best available choices for their children.

In addition, the Department of Education has several other resources for parents, such as pamphlets entitled "Ten Facts Every Parent Should Know About the No Child Left Behind Act" and "Questions Parents Ask about Schools," as well as a number of links to more information about supplemental services, all of which can be found through the Department of Education's website: www.ed.gov.[1] Education Secretary Rod Paige has also released a helpful back-to-school checklist for parents.[2]

Parents should know their rights under No Child Left Behind. School districts must-in plain and clear language-report on the improvement status of their schools and explain the options that parents have under NCLB if their children attend schools that 'need improvement.' Schools and districts may not place any additional requirements beyond those specified in NCLB on parents who are seeking public school choice or access to supplemental services. Parents who suspect that school administrators or district officials are preventing them from exercising their rights should seek assistance from their state's Department of Education.

Many school districts have innovative programs in place that implement the requirements of No Child Left Behind. One example is the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), which includes 106 schools that have been designated as needing improvement. Because 164,000 students are eligible for supplemental services in LAUSD, the district hired a full-time manager and assistant to oversee the Supplemental Educational Services (SES) program's recordkeeping and communication between parents, students, teachers, and SES providers. To make parents aware of the free services available to their children, schools sent home informational flyers, brochures, and provider-selection booklets in multiple languages. Principals and teachers described these choices to parents in person and over the telephone, and the district advertised SES in the local papers, on radio stations, and on television.[3]

LAUSD's efforts to inform parents of their options should be a model to other school districts still working to implement No Child Left Behind. In the meantime, parents should be proactive in finding out about their child's educational options. Access to choice-whether school choice or choice of tutoring services-is, after all, the best way for No Child Left Behind to live up to its name.

Grace Smith is a research assistant in domestic policy at The Heritage Foundation.

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