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Waving Bye to Bad Schools

July 13, 2002

There ought to be a law against rotten schools.

Wait! There is a law against rotten schools, if they receive federal money to educate poor children. It's part of the education bill that President Bush signed in January. Starting in September, students across the United States no longer have to stay in schools that keep failing. They can demand a transfer to a better public school. And their district has to pay for the ride.

So expect an exodus from the 8,652 public schools nationwide that flunked Washington's test--except the 122 in the Los Angeles Unified School District. The district is such an overcrowded mess that many of the shortchanged students won't have anywhere to go.

The federal law requires a school to meet state standards, and students must show improvement on standardized tests for two years including in each of several designated demographic groups (limited-English students, minority students, low-income students or special education students).

Only Michigan, among the 50 states, fared worse than California, which had 1,009 campuses on the rotten-schools list.

LAUSD officials say they expect many of their schools to fall off the federal list when new test scores are released in August. The district has already kicked out a few ineffective principals and, on some campuses, gotten rid of bad teachers.

Teachers who stay at problem schools identified in a separate state audit--for example, at Mount Vernon Middle School in the Crenshaw district--must agree in writing to meet certain criteria themselves. For example, they must dress professionally, be punctual, maintain high expectations for students and attend 20 days of mandatory training sessions, for which they will be paid.

Washington, quite logically, doesn't want to spend more money "with lousy results," Bush said when he signed the bipartisan bill renewing the largest federal education program. He referred to the $120 billion invested over 35 years in the Title I program, which was supposed to close the chronic gap in reading and math between rich and poor kids.

The goal remains the same, but the federal "No Child Left Behind" law shrewdly attaches plenty of strings. Even as kids exercise their right to flee, a school district must help failing schools' students improve by paying for tutoring, remedial education and other services.

Schools that refuse to comply with Washington's prescription will lose federal money. Eventually, though, students in public education will find schools' accountability a win.

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