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New York's Children Left Behind?

by Jessica Wolff, Jan 07, 2004
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Two years ago this month, on January 8, 2002, President Bush signed into law the No Child Left Behind Act, an extensive revision of the federal education law. The Act proposed to improve the academic achievement of all students. It pledged additional funding for quality teaching, proven instructional methods, choices for parents of students in low performing schools, and stronger accountability for achievement, including closing achievement gaps among different groups of students.

No Child Left Behind Act, which passed Congress with broad bipartisan support, is the latest reauthorization of the federal law on elementary and secondary education. First enacted in 1965 as part of President Lyndon Johnson's "War on Poverty," the law encompasses Title I, the federal government's largest program of school aid for disadvantaged students. (For a full description of the law's requirements see my November 2002 column, "No Child Left Behind.")

Though over half of New York City's public school students are poor, the federal government currently provides only about 10 percent of New York City's education budget. The rest comes from state and city funding. No Child Left Behind has brought some additional funding to the New York City schools, but it has itself never been fully funded. According to Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-New York: District 9), this year New York City will receive $400 million less than it was promised in No Child Left Behind. In an already resource-starved system, this disparity has led many parents, educators, advocates, and elected officials to believe that the new law demands changes without offering the means to implement them.

In the meantime, schools and districts must meet "annual yearly progress" targets for the school as a whole, as well as for separate demographic subgroups of students. Schools receiving federal poverty funding (called Title I schools) face consequences that escalate for each year of failure to meet these targets. These consequences range from providing alternatives, including transfers and tutoring, for students in failing schools to taking over or closing schools.

In January 2003, New York was among the first states to receive approval for its plan to meet the law's new accountability provisions, thanks to a strong state accountability system already in place. Over the past year, the New York City Department of Education has worked with the state education department, and with districts and schools, to fulfill such key provisions of No Child Left Behind as disseminating information about school performance, recruiting and hiring highly qualified teachers, and notifying hundreds of thousands of parents about their new options.

According to Ira Schwartz, a state education department official who monitors the city's compliance with No Child Left Behind, the New York City Department of Education has devoted considerable resources and made a good faith effort. But, Schwartz says, for large urban systems with high percentages of low income students, it is a hard law to implement. On a national scale, he believes, New York City would grade high compared with other large urban systems.

This year, for the first time, schools are being held accountable for the achievement of students of different races, students with disabilities, students with limited English proficiency, and low-income students. Schools have to report separate test score data for each of these subgroups and are not considered successful unless all groups meet test score targets. This information will appear on next year's school report cards.

In September, in compliance with No Child Left Behind, the state education department announced this year's list of "schools in need of improvement." The list includes schools that have missed their progress targets for two consecutive years or more. Of the 527 schools on the list, 347 are in New York City. Another 123 city schools that receive no federal poverty funding are listed as "requiring academic progress" because they failed to meet test score targets.

Under the parent choice provisions of No Child Left Behind, when a Title I school has been placed on the "schools in need of improvement" list, its students are entitled to transfer to a better school. After a second year on the list, its low-income students are entitled to free tutoring services. In principle, these options should offer students in low performing schools an important lifeline. In practice, as we shall see, it is not so simple.

In New York City, schools throughout the system are overcrowded. Schools in need of improvement are often found in neighborhoods where many of the schools are low performing. In the first year of the law, students entitled to a choice of schools were only offered options within their community school district, which meant that students in some districts were given very few and very poor options. Later, under pressure from parents and advocates, this policy was revised, and this year students were offered eight choices from schools throughout the city.

Still, only about 8,500 of the approximately 250,000 eligible students were able to exercise their option to move. Some parents found that the schools they were offered for transfer appeared no better than the schools they were entitled to leave. Moreover, many school options were far from students' homes.

New York City Council Member Eva Moskowitz, chair of the Council Education Committee, believes that the Department of Education must work much harder to provide fair access to the important right to school choice. "Middle class families have always had access to choice," she says, "but it is new to poor families. As a result, their children have been trapped for years on end in locally zoned schools that are failing. No Child Left Behind has the potential to say that they don't have to wait years for reform; they can go to a better school right now."

Because this idea is so "revolutionary" for poor people, Moskowitz believes that the Department of Education must conduct vast communications and public relations efforts to ensure that they know and exercise this right. She also called on the city to institute a "sibling policy" to make school transfers more family-friendly. But the city rejected the idea, so families with more than one child in a failing school will continue to receive two different lists of school choices.

Many high performing schools are already at or above capacity. This year, the transferring students increased overcrowding in a number of schools. Other large school systems, like Chicago, granted only a fraction of the transfers requested to avoid overcrowding. The Department of Education is reportedly looking for alternatives to mass transfers.

Under No Child Left Behind, low-income students from schools that stay on the failing list (In PDF Format) for a second year are also entitled to "supplementary educational services," extra academic help that can include private one-on-one tutoring. These free services may either be provided by the school district or by a community-based organization or private company.

Last year, of over 200,000 students eligible, only some 30,000 signed up for free tutoring. According to a report by Advocates of Children of New York, English language learners and students with disabilities were even less likely to get services than other students because of the city's poor communication with parents and tutoring providers, short deadlines for registration, and a lack of appropriate services available. Of the students who received tutoring, nearly all got services from the school system itself.

This year, Advocates for Children of New York and its allies, like City Council Member Moskowitz, called for changes so that families knew about their children's right to extra academic help, had sufficient time to register for tutoring, as well as got choices among providers so students were not simply required to spend more time at their failing schools.

This fall, the Department of Education improved its outreach to parents, relaxed enrollment deadlines, and announced that 40,000 students had enrolled for services. Advocates point out that this still only amounts to 19 percent of those eligible for free tutoring services and urge expanded measures for continued improvement.

While the New York City Department of Education struggles to comply with the many provisions of No Child Left Behind, critics of the law complain that its requirements create a distraction from the real challenges the city's school system faces. The new federal law may have created some new opportunities for a relatively small number of the city's l.l million public school students, but most of its requirements do little to address the city's underlying problems of chronic underfunding, an inability to attract and retain good teachers and principals, overcrowded and unsuitable facilities, and a lack of services and support for the many students with broader educational needs.

Representative Weiner, for one, believes that No Child Left Behind has left the city's schools worse off than before. "The law visited all these new regulatory requirements on the city schools and didn't give them the resources to accommodate the change," he says. "No Child Left Behind is really just an elaborate regulatory Kabuki dance to cover the fact that the New York City schools have been shortchanged."

Jessica Wolff is a public school parent and Director of Policy Development at the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, a not-for-profit coalition working to reform New York State's education finance system to ensure adequate resources and the opportunity for a sound basic education for all students in New York City. The views expressed are her own.

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