The Magazine

Leaving Many Children Behind

Congress passes Bush's education reform, and school districts ignore it.

Aug 26, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 47 • By CHESTER E. FINN JR.
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Notwithstanding such shenanigans, thousands of youngsters are changing schools under the new federal requirement, even in such upscale places as Montgomery County, Maryland. Denver estimates that almost 5,000 students will leave their neighborhood schools, though some are choosing other low-performing schools. (Down the interstate in Colorado Springs, principals of exit-eligible schools wrote personal letters to parents pleading with them not to leave.) And some families are making these moves for reasons having more to do with playgrounds and personalities than academic achievement. "It's hard to quantify why they picked what they picked," remarked the head of Denver's Title I program.

When all is said and done, it's just a few thousand poor children, not millions, who are succeeding in escaping bad schools for better ones this fall, never mind the No Child Left Behind Act. Mainly what we're seeing is widespread flouting of the law's intent--and a federal government that can do little to make resistant school systems change their ways. Though the Bush administration has revived its interest in school choice--filing an important Supreme Court brief in the Cleveland case and proposing tax credits for school expenses--its Education Department has few enforcement tools at times like this. Nobody is about to cut off Title I funds to districts that dawdle over school choice. In fact, No Child Left Behind authorizes the withholding only of a smidgen of administrative money from states and districts that do not fulfill its mandates. Nor do any rewards--save perhaps in Heaven--await those that conscientiously provide solid alternatives for their students.

What we're really seeing, once again, is how the public education establishment despises school choice, how little it will bestir itself to assist poor families to gain access to better schools, and the hardball tactics it deploys to keep lawmakers from adding more exit doors.

The lesson: Congress can paste whatever label it wishes on its shiny new statute, but when it entrusts a choice program to the same people who brought us 8,600 failed schools in the first place, it leaves millions of children behind.

Chester E. Finn Jr. is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.