Last year, roughly 10,000 children in persistently failing New Orleans middle schools had the option of transferring to a better school. Only 17 did.

The New Orleans experience—an example of what could happen in Chicago this fall under the No Child Left Behind Act—suggests caution for parents who may want to transfer their children to a better school and comfort for Chicago administrators who fear having to bus droves of students out of their neighborhoods.

New Orleans officials were operating under a 1994 federal law that, beginning in 2000, gave states extra money for school improvement in return for requiring districts to provide school choice to children at failing schools. (Illinois and a handful of other states never implemented the program.)

Initially, New Orleans responded much as Chicago has to the new law. Claiming school choice could not be carried out as intended, the school district applied for an exemption under a since-closed loophole dealing with overcrowding and other factors that could inhibit choice.

Nationwide, many districts had won exemptions. For example, Camden, N.J., did not have to offer choice at the middle-school level because all its middle schools were low-performing and, therefore, not eligible to serve as receiving schools. In Louisiana, however, the state held a firm line on exemptions.

Forced to move ahead, New Orleans school officials first asked principals at the better schools to accept transfer students; there were few volunteers. The district then conducted a space-utilization study, finding only 141 open spots at these schools. It had planned to offer a lottery for them but found that that was unnecessary. Parents of only 70 children expressed interest, and, in the end, only 17 children transferred.

According to district and school officials, many parents were persuaded to stay put because the 11 schools identified as failing were being renamed, assigned new principals and given $5 million in new resources, such as smaller classes and an extended-day care program. “We came up with a plan that would produce quality, better-performing schools,” says Ollie Tyler, the chief academic officer in the district.

School officials also say that most of the parents who wanted to move their children already had done so through enrollment in magnet schools, moving to another neighborhood or registering their children from a relative’s address instead of their own. “Parents do know [about their options]. They just don’t want to take that step until something bad happens to their children,” says Marie Farve, president of the New Orleans District PTA.

Critics of the district note that the letter notifying parents about choice focused largely on the $5 million in school-improvement efforts, not the features or programs at the other schools where students might choose to go. In addition, no transportation was offered. (The new law requires districts to provide transportation.)

Also magnet schools were off limits. “If the district wanted parents to get their kids out of those low-performing schools, they would have made it very easy to get into the best schools,” says Karran Royal, a former district employee who now represents parents. Instead, says Royal, choice has been limited to “other barely performing schools.”

Dianne Piche, an education expert with the Washington, D.C.-based Citizens Commission on Civil Rights, argues that voluntary choice can help kids and push schools to improve if it’s offered sincerely. “When parents are effectively notified of their options, many parents do choose to move their children to better schools,” she says. “The question is whether there is a will to do this.”

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