Betty Henderson is not happy about how her local school, Mason Elementary in North Lawndale, has been treating one of her grandsons.

“I have a very poor impression of the school,” she says, singling out the special education classroom where the boy, a 3rd-grader, has been placed. “Before he came to Mason, he was doing fine.” Fed up, Henderson, who has 13 grandchildren at Mason, would like to move her grandson to another school with a better special education program. “I have seen so many other schools that would be more appropriate,” she says.

Federal lawmakers had people like Henderson in mind when they passed sweeping legislation called No Child Left Behind (NCLB) eight months ago. Through a combination of threats and more money, the law aims to boost the performance of schools enrolling low-income children. Meanwhile, it gives children at those schools an escape hatch.

However, both Illinois and Chicago officials have severely restricted access to that hatch in the first year of what promises to be an increasingly more demanding environment for schools.

Children in public schools that have failed to make acceptable progress on state tests for two years in a row are supposed to be able to transfer to better-performing schools, transportation provided. The law gives top priority to low-income, low-achieving students.

At schools failing to make acceptable progress for three years, parents are supposed to have the option of selecting after-school tutoring from a variety of providers, including community-based organizations and for-profit companies. The tutoring also would be on the government’s dime. Children who attend “persistently dangerous” schools also are supposed to be able to transfer. So are children who are victims of violent crimes at their schools.

Though these options were supposed to kick in this fall, Henderson and many other Chicago parents in her situation have no new options.

Under the plan unveiled by the Board of Education in late July, only a fraction of the 179 Chicago schools that failed to make adequate progress the last two years will provide choice this year. Mason Elementary is not among them. To the consternation of federal officials in Washington, D.C., Illinois is trying to delay the tutoring option, and it is still working out definitions of unsafe schools and violent crimes.

There is a “big pushback” against the new law, says Richard Laine of the Illinois Business Roundtable, an organization that strongly supports No Child Left Behind. “And it’s going to get worse.”

Feds step up

Created out of frustration with the slow progress of efforts to educate low-income children, No Child Left Behind is a dramatic step in federal involvement in education. For most of the past 35 years, the federal role has been limited to providing additional funding to help schools serving large populations of low-income children. Title I, the biggest federal education program, has functioned more as a funding source than an education program, typically providing no more than 10 percent of a local district’s revenue.

Congress last visited the elementary and secondary education law eight years ago, creating the 1994 Improving America’s Schools Act, which called on states to develop high academic standards and tests, as well as to identify and intervene in schools that failed to make acceptable progress. States responded slowly, and many, including Illinois, came into compliance with the 1994 law only recently.

Despite demonstrated school improvement, Chicago and Illinois exemplify many of the shortcomings that NCLB seeks to correct. Their accountability systems left many poorly performing and stagnating schools untouched, and ignored performance gaps between different groups of students, such as blacks and Hispanics. With the goal that every student will be proficient in reading and math by the 2013-2014 school year, NCLB demands annual progress among all groups at all schools.

No Child Left Behind is “a good law for poor kids,” says Kati Haycock, executive director of the Education Trust, an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. Its commitment to the education of all children “is a hugely important milestone,” she adds.

While the provisions for choice make NCLB appear to be a Republican creation, the law is a compromise authored by a bipartisan group that included liberal stalwarts like Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Rep. George Miller (D-Cal.) and was supported by liberal advocacy groups like the Education Trust and the Citizen’s Commission on Civil Rights.

Liberals won a massive increase in funding sought by the education community and a more targeted flow of funds to urban districts like Chicago. Conservatives secured added support for charter schools, alternative teacher certification programs and the parental choice requirements. As the law was crafted, the tutoring requirement, which allows for-profit and religious groups to provide services, was a bigger concern to some liberal advocates than was choice, which is limited to public schools.

Hitting the brakes

However, it was the choice option that concerned educators most. The ink on President Bush’s signature was barely dry when Illinois and Chicago school officials began working to ensure that droves of parents would not move their children. As enacted, the choice requirement created the possibility that low-performing students could push their way into popular and selective schools or even bump higher-achieving students out of line.

With support from the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE), Chicago first got the Legislature to pass a new law (SB 1983) to limit the impact of NCLB. Its main provision removed certain kinds of schools from the list of potential receiving schools. Exempted were schools considered overcrowded, which by the School Board’s definition is 80 percent of capacity. Also exempted were schools with selective academic requirements. The district asked for but did not receive additional permission to limit the ability of special needs students to transfer freely.

“This choice is nothing short of a joke,” Madeline Talbott, head organizer of the community advocacy group Illinois ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now), said at the time. “They took away the most attractive options.” (ACORN backed the plan that CPS unveiled later in the summer because it funnels more money to failing schools.)

Meanwhile, ISBE was working to minimize the number of schools that would have to offer choice. Between February and July, the number of Chicago schools dropped more than 50 percent—from almost 400 to 179. And ISBE declared that no schools had to provide supplemental tutoring this year.

Some of the decline stemmed from a legitimate shift in the measure of school performance. The state had used absolute test scores—the percent of a school’s students who met state standards; the feds are interested in year-to-year progress. (See story on page 10.) Also, some schools made real improvements.

However, ISBE nudged the numbers downward. First, it bypassed 1998 test results, starting the clock with 1999 results; that decreased the number of failing schools.

Then it used 2002 test results selectively. An acceptable score could get a school off the list. But an unacceptable score for the second year in a row did not put a school on the list. “The 2002 data can only get you off the list,” said ISBE spokesperson Kim Knauer.

For Illinois, that meant a 40 percent reduction in the number of schools that were to offer choice. In Chicago, that meant almost 80 fewer schools. (In late August, the state, under federal pressure, added 12 high schools, based on 1998 test scores.)

From CPS’s point of view, the decrease was good news for two reasons: There would be fewer student transfers, and the district could more narrowly focus the extra money it got to help failing schools. “Are you going to put [schools] on a watch list and watch them, or are you going to help them?” asks CPS Chief Accountability Officer Phil Hansen, reflecting the district’s belief that it can provide meaningful help to only so many schools at a time.

Down to 50

As summer progressed, the bureaucratic narrowing continued. In July, CPS unveiled a “pilot choice program” that included just 50 of the 179 schools:

Forty schools, including 21 of the lowest performing ones, were paired with two to four receiving schools each.

Ten failing schools became part of four clusters containing a total of five to six schools each. The clusters are in Chatham/Washington Heights, South Loop, Near West/Pilsen and Woodlawn. In developing this plan, CPS strove principally to minimize transportation distances, putting a three-mile limit on busing. In contrast, CPS provides bus service to gifted and other magnet school students if they live within a six-mile radius of the school.

Chicago Schools CEO Arne Duncan says that had the district allowed choice at all 179 schools and dropped busing limits, the costs would have “escalated exponentially. … We would have had one child going to a school all by himself, which basically costs $35,000. It would have been much cheaper to buy that family a car.”

The geographic limitation restricted not only the number of students who could transfer—all told, there were just 2,500 seats for 29,000 kids in the 50 schools—but also the kind of schools they could transfer to.

“Some of these schools are just a sneeze away from not performing themselves,” observes Wanda Hopkins of Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE).

The 90 receiving schools include several language academies and neighborhood magnets, but only 41 have reading scores that exceed the citywide average on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, a CATALYST analysis shows. (NCLB uses a different test, the Illinois Standards Achievement Tests, but 2002 scores for individual schools have not been released and, therefore, could not be analyzed.)

Further, for some children, the alternatives to their own schools have Iowa scores that are worse or little better—a result of judging schools by their yearly progress rather than absolute test scores. For children at five of the failing schools, all of the alternatives are worse or little better, judging by test scores.

However, for children at 41 of the 50 schools, at least one of the alternatives is substantially better by at least 10 percentage points. For 19 of the 41, all the options are substantially better.

Duncan and his team claimed to have the strong support of U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige for the pilot approach. But a Department of Education official who asked not to be named says only that Chicago’s plan is “acceptable for this year.”

“This is a really weak program,” says Donald Moore of the research and advocacy group Designs for Change. It provides no “meaningful” opportunity for choice, he contends, adding, “A lot of parents are going to be disappointed.”

“They’re making up a lot of parameters and assumptions that aren’t in the act,” observes Sarah Vanderwicken, director of the children’s health and education project at the Chicago Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

The Duncan plan “isn’t making the better schools more accessible to kids who have not been having that much access,” she adds. “It’s a sham to tell parents that this is our way of complying.”

Duncan says CPS is considering changes in its school options program for next year that would give some low-performing students a better chance at getting into magnets.

Chicago’s plan came in for scathing criticism by a Boston Globe columnist, who called it educational apartheid. While many other urban districts placed limits on the choices parents could make, Chicago alone banned choice for some parents.

Duncan’s the author

By several accounts, the design and rationale of the CPS response came largely from Duncan, who worked to create neighborhood clusters of magnet schools before taking the district’s helm last year.

In the view of Duncan and his team, Chicago already was out in front on school choice. More than 90,000 elementary school children—roughly 25 percent—attend schools outside their neighborhoods, according to CPS.

In recent years, the School Board has increased magnet programs, principally at the high school level, while striving to limit busing distances and, therefore, busing costs.

However, Congress intended that some of the extra money it provided under NCLB would pay for busing. Specifically, the law says districts must spend 5 to 15 percent of their Title I money on transportation.

But Chicago is going its own way.

This year, CPS’s Title I allotment rose by $47 million, or 27 percent, to a total of $216 million, according to school officials. (See story on page 11.) Under the federal formula, it should spend at least $10 million on transportation. Yet it plans to spend no more than $5 million, little of which may be needed for transportation costs related to NCLB.

Beyond cost, CPS officials were worried about the disruption that an 11th-hour busing program could cause during the all-important start of the school year. Last year, a switch in busing routines caused headaches for schools and parents and bad press for Duncan’s team.

At a late July press conference, Duncan urged parents not to abandon schools on the basis of a “single year’s test scores.” In fact, the ISBE designation of schools “in need of improvement” is based on three years of test scores, similar to the criteria used by CPS in closing three schools last spring.

Also in July, Mayor Richard M. Daley called key elements of NCLB “ridiculous,” a statement that grabbed headlines and was circulated around the country.

Though he put limitations on choice under NCLB, Duncan insists: “I’m a big believer in choice. We have more choice than any other big city in America, including New York, Boston and Los Angeles.”

But for him, school improvement is a separate issue. “I honestly believe that the best way to fix these schools is to fix these schools,” he says.

Public quiet

Despite the many discrepancies between the language of NCLB and the actions of CPS, there has been little public outcry.

“I think it’s a reasonable plan,” says G. Alfred Hess Jr., director of the Center for School Policy at Northwestern University. “[It] creates an option but doesn’t disrupt the system.”

“Nobody wants to send their kid across town to a different school,” says Denise Dixon, president of Illinois ACORN. “Why don’t you just give my children the resources they need in their neighborhood school that they can walk to and that I can get to if I need to?”

While critical of the CPS choice plan, Sarah Vanderwicken of the Lawyers’ Committee is more concerned about the law’s emphasis on testing in the first place. “They’ve made it very difficult for educators to do the things that people are learning are good and [that] do in fact help kids.”

So far, there has been no groundswell of interest in choice among parents, either. Parents of only 2,407 children, applied for transfers. The board granted only 1,165 because many schools had more requests than available slots.

“I don’t want to take my child out,” says Sheila Dunson, mother of a 2nd-grader at Curtis Elementary. “I want to make my school better.”

But she adds that if things at Curtis don’t change, she may be forced to find another place to send her daughter. “I don’t want to keep my child in a school that’s not going to put education first.”

Trouble ahead

From critics to supporters, nearly everyone agrees that No Child Left Behind is going to pose even greater challenges in the future. Schools that take in low-performing choice students will have to work harder to keep their scores up. A more rigorous definition of adequate yearly progress will kick in. And current teachers and paraprofessionals will have to meet new requirements.

Based on preliminary budget figures, federal funding is not likely to rise as steeply and could be stretched by the requirement that districts pay for additional tutoring by outside groups if parents demand it.

Shock waves likely will pass through the suburbs as their schools are judged by the performance of subgroups such as minorities, poor children and limited English speakers as well as their student bodies as a whole.

Haycock of the Education Trust says that across the country, implementation of the new law is generally going best where community leaders are not “letting the rhetoric get out of hand. Sure, there’s something not to like for everybody. The question is, what’s the message when you take potshots? You send the message that people ought not to try.”

Meanwhile, Betty Henderson says that even though Mason Elementary, her grandson’s school, was excluded from the choice plan, her grandson is going to transfer. “He’s going to go somewhere else, even if his mom has to move out, and I’ll help her,” she says. “But he’s not going here.”

Interns Christine Oliva and Eunice Kim

contributed to this report.

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