CAMBRIDGE, Mass., April 16 (UPI) — Even in its early stages, President George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind Act,” signed in January 2002 and just beginning to bear fruit, illustrates two important dynamics in education reform.

First, one congressman and a few individual teachers can make a big difference. And second, you can improve the education that millions of students get, even if only a few thousand students actually change classrooms — provided you change the incentives and options available to parents.

These two facts became clear at a conference last weekend at the Harvard University Law School, one of the first such academic gatherings to assess, albeit early in the game, the impact of Bush’s reform.

The conference, organized by Brooke Richie and a small group of students, gave testimony to the value of individual and small-group initiative. With only a few weeks’ notice, the students threw together an impressive panel of officials and research papers from members of Congress, leading scholars and state officials, and the Department of Education.

The most important discussion — because the topic was so vital — concerned the progress of a too-little-understood provision of the act, the “public school choice” policy for “schools that need to improve.”

This provision essentially covers schools that don’t meet performance standards under a previous (1994) education reform act. Students at such schools may transfer to local public schools that perform better.

The clause was inserted in the House-Senate conference over the bill by Ohio Rep. John Boehner, chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee, and one of the brightest stars in the GOP galaxy. In this, he had some indirect help from a Teacher Choice group that met in the summer of 2001 to ponder the problem that No Child Left Behind, as it then stood, didn’t apply many of its testing and other incentives until as late as 2014.

A Florida public school teacher, Ira Paul, mentioned to several of Boehner’s colleagues that these too-delayed incentives might be sped up by establishing a choice provision, for public schools only, right away. Public school choice is something even former President Bill Clinton had endorsed — strongly — in his 2000 State of the Union address.

Some of the colleagues reportedly passed the idea along to Boehner, who made his opportune insertion in conference, and a handful of public school teachers had just improved schools for hundreds of thousands of students.

How is it doing? According to an estimate by the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution, or AdTI — based on data from five states and three cities — at least 120,000 students have applied for transfers, and more than 50,000 have achieved them.

The Department of Education, according to senior aide Mike Petrilli, is in the process of compiling information from the 50 states in order to provide hard numbers to the AdTI survey projection.

“That’s not much,” one of the Harvard students noted. “What happens to the other couple of million students that are still ‘left behind’ by the act?”

The short answer is, of course, even if something only improves the life of one student, it’s progress. The thing to do then is extend the program, so more students take part.

According to a paper Boehner submitted to AdTI, to be published later as part of the conference record, the program has the potential to liberate students in an estimated 8,652 schools — approximately 4 million children overall.

The longer answer is, even if 90 percent or more of those students are “left behind” in failing public schools — which will be the result of a choice by their parents — it doesn’t follow that their education isn’t improved. The program, by changing incentives and opportunities, has an impact on every school that’s under-performing, and thereby, on every student in those schools.

In Milwaukee, less than 5 percent of the parents have taken advantage of a $5,000 education voucher to send their kids to a private school. But the public and charter schools, noting which way the students are moving, have been beside themselves to improve. And they have.

Similarly, in Harlem, Seattle and Minnesota, which have pre-existing public school choice programs, only a small number of students have actually changed schools. Yet test performance has improved at all schools, and parents note that their public school administrators are a lot more customer-friendly.

And the act is still in its early phases of implementation, and many parents around the country don’t even know they are now free to choose among local public schools. In New York City, parents had to file a lawsuit to get the city and state education departments to send out mandatory information letters, and start implementing the program faithfully.

This process in itself has produced a useful pressure on school boards and teacher union officials around the country. In some wealthy districts in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and other cities, local high-performing schools have resisted allowing students in, claiming there isn’t room, they can’t handle the transfer paperwork, and so on.

We will find out, in the coming years, who the real civil rights advocates are — those who watch such foot-dragging without making any protest, or those who hold the education bureaucracy’s feet to the fire.

The program has attracted little attention so far, for various reasons.

Some school voucher advocates dismiss the provision’s importance because it applies only to public school choice — rather than providing a private school option, or voucher. Casey Lartigue, a Cato Institute fellow who took part in the Harvard conference, noted this shortcoming, wondering whether the act, providing a tiny modicum of choice to a small number of parents, and no private-school option, isn’t perhaps unlikely to meet its ambitious goals.

Voucher opponents, such as the National Education Association and the National School Boards Association, aren’t opposed to the Boehner provision, but they aren’t particularly excited about it.

Their reform agenda essentially boils down to three items: One, more money; two, more money, and three, right away, and without any standards or performance requirements, please. Every business in America is having to produce more with less, by increasing productivity, but not education.

Still, the Bush act, and especially Boehner’s choice insertion, is working a quiet revolution in America’s public schools. It hasn’t been noticed yet, because the “average student” hasn’t changed schools. Then again, on about 95 percent of the days of the year, it doesn’t snow in Buffalo.

”'”Ed-biz” focuses on the dynamic, cutting edge of change in education, as business generates alternatives to public education, and promotes change within public education. Gregory Fossedal is a contributing editor to Educationnews.org”’

Copyright 2003 by United Press International. All rights reserved.

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