Friday, December 17, 2004

Thousands can leave low-rated schools

293,000 Texas students eligible to transfer to a higher-rated campus

10:49 PM CST on Friday, December 17, 2004

By TERRENCE STUTZ / The Dallas Morning News

AUSTIN – The number of low-rated public schools under Texas' education choice law soared this year, giving more than 293,000 students at the state's worst campuses the right to transfer to a better school.

The Texas Education Agency listed 420 schools statewide Friday, up from 126 a year ago. The Dallas Independent School District had the second-most, with 48 campuses – up from 20 last year. Houston led the state with 62 schools that failed to make the grade.

Even with the transfer option, though, few students are expected to take advantage of the Public Education Grant program, primarily because transportation is not provided and school districts are not required to accept students from neighboring districts.

TAKS Test 2004
Complete list: Transfer-eligible Texas schools

TAKS results: Statewide performance, Spring 2004

About TAKS

More Education

But Republican leaders in the Legislature may use that fact to argue that students need vouchers that can be used at private schools to truly be free of low-performing public schools. Voucher backers could use the list of 420 low-rated schools to choose sites for a test program.

State education officials attributed the large increase in failing schools to the tougher performance standards that were introduced this year. Those standards were based in large part on the state's redesigned achievement test, the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills.

"We expected to see an increase because schools are being held to higher standards under the accountability system, and we added test scores in science and social studies to the criteria," said Debbie Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency.

"Low student performance on the science test was one of the most common reasons that schools were rated academically unacceptable this year," she said.

A DISD spokesman said officials expected to have more campuses on this year's list.

"The numbers are what they are, and we're trying to do what we can," said Donald Claxton. "We'll do better next year."

Other school districts in the Dallas area that had campuses on the state list were Arlington, Birdville, Carrollton-Farmers Branch, DeSoto, Grand Prairie, Irving, Lake Worth, Lancaster, Lewisville, Richardson and Wilmer-Hutchins. The Fort Worth school district had 10 campuses on the list.

Making the list

To make the list, a school had to have more than 50 percent of its students fail the TAKS or its predecessor – the TAAS – in any two of the last three years or have been rated academically unacceptable this year or in 2002. Performance ratings were not issued in 2003.

Students from those schools can transfer to another public school in their own district or another district – if that district agrees to accept them. Those that do receive a financial incentive from the state – an extra 10 percent per pupil.

The names of eligible schools are being published now because most districts consider transfer requests several months before the start of the new school year, education officials said. Parents must be notified of the option by Feb. 1, with students allowed to attend a new school next fall.

Students at substandard schools also have the right to transfer to a better school under the federal No Child Left Behind Act – but the number of eligible campuses is less than half that under the Texas Public Education Grant program. The federal law was based in part on Texas school reforms enacted under Gov. George W. Bush.

In September, 199 Texas schools were put on the federal list – including about three dozen regular and charter schools in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Passing rates on the TAKS were the main criteria in compiling that list, which was dominated by high schools.

Under the federal program, school districts must provide transportation to a transferring student, unlike the state program.

Since the Public Education Grant program began in the late 1990s, just under 2,000 students – including 127 last year – have used it to transfer to a new school.

Low participation

Critics of the program's current requirements contend that participation won't increase significantly until transportation is offered and school districts are required to accept students from low-rated campuses in neighboring districts.

Ms. Ratcliffe said another reason for the low participation is that many districts have made it easier for students to transfer within the district, regardless of the state requirements.

The state's charter school program also gives an alternative to parents unhappy with their regular neighborhood school. Texas has about 275 independent charter campuses across the state that educate nearly 70,000 students.

Supporters of school vouchers have long cited the low participation in the Public Education Grant program as one reason why Texas needs to expand school choice options to private schools.

They have urged the Legislature to allow students at failing schools to transfer to any public or private school using state vouchers to pay tuition but have had no success. Next year, though, voucher supporters may have their best chance, with social conservative activists and Republican leaders making vouchers a high priority.

School boards, PTAs and teacher groups have vigorously opposed vouchers, contending it would drain millions of dollars from public schools.

Staff writer Tawnell D. Hobbs in Dallas contributed to this report.


Online at: here


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