A severe shortage of classroom space in large urban school districts is undermining a new federal education law's promise to give 3.5 million poor children the choice of better public schools this fall.
One of the key features of the "No Child Left Behind" law, touted by the Bush administration as a remedy for ailing schools, offers students from low-income families the opportunity to switch from troubled campuses to better ones in the same district.
But in the Los Angeles Unified School District, where nearly 230,000 youngsters qualify for transfers at public expense, there are as few as 100 seats available in better schools. Similar shortages are expected to limit access to top schools in New York, Chicago, Baltimore, Sacramento and other cities.
School administrators and others say the new decree will not better the prospects of the vast majority of low-income students in more than 8,600 struggling schools identified by government officials.
"There are no empty seats in the best public schools," said Diane Ravitch, an education researcher at New York University and assistant secretary of education under former President Bush. "If you don't have any choices, then it's hollow."
In fact, some educators now believe that the failure of large school systems to deliver choice for legions of poor students could give new impetus to the private school voucher movement, which was recently reinvigorated by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
In most districts, including L.A. Unified, parents whose children attend the affected schools have not yet been notified of their transfer options. But some who have heard of the program are dismayed that they may be unable to take advantage of it.
"It's upsetting. I'd like to have the best for my son," said Elva Garcia Mills, whose son Daniel attends Belmont High School, one of 120 Los Angeles campuses that students can theoretically leave this year. "Some schools are better than others."
Officials with the U.S. Department of Education acknowledge that crowded school systems may need several years to comply with the law. But they expect districts to make a good-faith effort this first year.
"Our goal here is to change our understanding of how public education is delivered," said Eugene Hickok, undersecretary of education. "This will be the first time that federal education policy speaks directly to parents."
The idea of letting parents choose better public schools grew out of a political compromise in Washington.
The Bush administration early on favored giving families of children in faltering schools federally funded vouchers to pay for tutoring or tuition at private schools. Democrats balked at the idea for fear vouchers would drain money from public schools. The two sides settled on offering public school choice.
Then, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that a voucher program in Cleveland allowing students to attend private parochial schools at public expense did not violate the constitutional separation of church and state.
Both sides in the case predicted that the decision would trigger a national push for vouchers, charter schools and other forms of school choice. If public school choice falters, that could fuel the voucher movement, some educators say.
"It's a very sensitive issue," said Dennis Van Roekel, vice president-elect of the National Education Assn., the country's largest teachers union. "When people criticize what currently exists, their solution is to say we need to take children somewhere else. That is not a solution."
The public school transfer option is part of a sweeping education law that President Bush signed in January. It also requires states to test students annually and demands that schools have "highly qualified" teachers within four years.
Several large urban districts call the new requirements on teacher quality and school choice unrealistic. The school choice provisions put a financial burden on districts, which must use federal funds to pay for transportation, tutoring and other services.
Many educators say the law is unnecessary, pointing out that many school systems and states already allow students to transfer to their choice of schools and programs.
All of the under-performing campuses affected by the new law landed on the federal list because they failed to adequately raise test scores for two years running.
Districts are supposed to give priority to the lowest-achieving children from poor families at these schools. But large urban districts have an enormous number of children in that category.
In Chicago, for example, officials have just 2,800 openings for 125,000 eligible low-income elementary students from 179 schools.
So the district is offering transfers to just 29,000 students at 50 campuses. Parents will learn next week whether their children get to move.
The space crunch is even more severe in Los Angeles, where nearly one-third of 736,000 students are eligible to attend new schools this fall.