Like every junior high school student in Camden, New Jersey, 12-year-old Ashley Fernandez attends a school that has been designated as failing under state and federal standards for more than three years. But low expectations were the least of this seventh-grader's problems. In 2004 Ashley's gym teacher became irritated by his unruly class and punished all the girls by putting them in the boys' locker room. Two boys dragged Ashley into the shower room. One held her arms and the other held her legs while they fondled her for more than 10 minutes. The teacher was not present, and no one helped Ashley.
Ashley's principal, who has refused to acknowledge the assault, denied her a transfer out of Morgan Village Middle School. Since the gym incident, Ashley has received numerous threats, including repeated confrontations with male students who grab her and then run away. When Ashley's mother began keeping her home from school, she got a court summons for allowing truancy.
Ashley is not alone. Last year Carmen Santana's grandson Abraham was afraid to go to his classes at Camden High School after two boys hit him in the face, broke his nose, and chipped his teeth. Santana was also charged with allowing truancy while she sought permission for Abraham to complete his senior year studies at home.
In 2004 Samet Kieng was almost killed at Camden's Woodrow Wilson High School after refusing to give up his chemistry class stool to a latecomer. According to a Philadelphia Inquirer story based on Samet's account, "his assailant, who outweighs him by about 60 pounds, typically arrived late for chemistry class and demanded Kieng's seat. Kieng was studying for the state's high school proficiency exam and refused to move. Kieng said he was surprised when the student confronted him later in the locker room." He was beaten by at least four students. Samet could transfer to the other public high school in Camden, but it is officially designated as "persistently dangerous."
In all, more than 100 parents have removed their children from Camden schools because of safety concerns. The school district's response: a truancy crackdown.
This situation is exactly the sort of problem that George W. Bush's much-ballyhooed No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) was supposed to address. As the president said in a January 2001 press conference introducing the law, "American children must not be left in persistently dangerous or failing schools. When schools do not teach and will not change, parents and students must have other meaningful options. And when children or teenagers go to school afraid of being threatened or attacked or worse, our society must make it clear it's the ultimate betrayal of adult responsibility."
NCLB was supposed to rescue kids like Ashley, Abraham, and Samet. The legislation was passed in December 2001 by a bipartisan coalition led by President Bush and Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.). Its central components include annual math and reading tests for students in grades 3 to 8 based on state standards; parent-friendly report cards with assessment results broken out by poverty, race, ethnicity, disability, and English-language proficiency; and the promise to offer parents a choice of a better public school when their child's school is designated as dangerous or has failed to meet its state's academic standards for two years in a row.
As Bush explained in a January 8, 2002, speech at the University of New Hampshire, "If a school can't change, if a school can't show the parents and community leaders that they can teach the basics, something else has to take place. In order for there to be accountability, there has [sic] to be consequences. And the consequence in this bill is that after a period of time, if a parent is tired of their child being trapped into [sic] a failed school, that parent will have different options, public school choice, charter, and private tutoring."
Similarly, Kennedy -- who has since charged that NCLB has been inadequately funded and implemented -- initially declared that the bill's "message to every parent" is "help is on the way." In one of many press releases celebrating the act, U.S. Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Education Committee, promised that "these changes represent a significant departure from the status quo and will empower low-income parents with new options and new choices."
Three years later, Camden's families across the United States are still trapped in failing and dangerous schools. There are many adjectives that describe their relationship with the public school system, but empowered is not one of them.
Since the No Child Left Behind Act was passed, less than 2 percent of parents nationwide have transferred their children to other public schools. Teachers unions, school administrators, and journalists have argued that the low transfer rates prove parents do not want more choices and that they prefer their local schools. But while parents have more information than ever about the quality of their children's schools, in most cases they still have no way out of a failing institution.
Districts have not made a good-faith effort to implement public school choice. Sometimes parents are not notified of their option to change schools at all; other times they're told only after the school year is well under way. Some districts send parents letters discouraging them from transferring their kids. The choices themselves are limited to marginally better schools, with superior institutions often refusing to accept low-performing students.
One Bad School to Another
A February 2004 report by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard found that in 10 urban school districts with large concentrations of children eligible to exercise school choice under NCLB, less than 3 percent of eligible students requested a transfer. Even with the small number of requests, no district in the study was able to approve all or even most of the transfer requests.
Many parents of students in failing schools are not even aware of the right to transfer. A federally funded survey of Buffalo parents by the Brighter Choice Public School Project found that 75 percent of the parents surveyed did not realize their children attended a school designated as in need of improvement, which means it did not make adequate yearly progress in reading or math for two consecutive years. A full 92 percent said they would like to switch schools. A comparable percentage of parents in Albany also were unaware of the transfer option.