Another consequence of NCLB: What to do with students from failed schools
When a failing school is shut down, where can the students go? This is a burning question faced by many students across the country, and its made particularly more difficult under NCLB. Students living in an African American suburb in southern Illinois are finding the doors of neighboring districts locked tight against them as their school has closed its doors. The interesting thing is that the antecedents to this story go back to the 1950s. The whole story is interesting, but note the paragraph in boldface in particular. From the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Georgina Gustin:
Earlier this year, the [Venice, Illinois school] board that ran the city's remaining high school — Lincoln Charter School — voted to close it, citing dwindling enrollment and limited cash. Now, parents have to decide where to send their children before the school year begins.
...Residents in Venice are upset and bitter — and many say those feelings stem from something that happened decades ago and that few even remember.
In the 1950s, when the state set about consolidating its school districts and redrawing district boundaries, the city of Venice was effectively split into two districts.
Children who lived in southern areas of the city stayed in the Venice school system, while children in the northern areas of the city were sent to the adjacent Madison school system.
At the time those boundaries were drawn, much of downstate Illinois was farmland, and today those haphazard boundaries make for some odd district configurations.
In Maryville, for example, there's a subdivision in a former cornfield where the residents of all but one of the streets go to the Collinsville district, while the residents of the remaining street belong to the Edwardsville district.
But in Venice, some residents believe the district was carved up via a political deal designed to distribute black students evenly between Madison and Venice, which were both majority white at the time.
Those boundaries still exist today.
"Madison and Venice are unique in that a portion of the city was cut in half," said Cullen Cullen, assistant superintendent for the Madison County Regional Office of Education. "That was unusual. There are a few examples of that in the state, but even fewer were based on race."
Over the next five decades, school administrators looked the other way as students who lived in the Madison school district in north Venice attended Venice schools and vice versa. Seven years ago, though, the then-Madison district superintendent complained to authorities that Venice was taking students who belonged in Madison and claiming them as their own. A state audit later showed that Venice was taking as many as 200 students from Madison, doubling its enrollment, and getting state aid based on the inflated numbers.
"They were drawing kids that weren't theirs and getting the money," Cullen explained.
The resulting drop in state aid and enrollment compounded budget woes already triggered by a change in state law that prevented the district from collecting corporate personal property taxes from the rail yards.
In 2004, Venice residents voted to close the crumbling high school after years of deterioration and neglect. Afterward, the district applied to 12 neighboring districts to take the school's 55 students and none would. Eventually, the state ordered East St. Louis to take students who wished to attend. Last year 16 went. (About 90 students still attend the Venice grade school.)
Harry Briggs, former superintendent for the Madison County Regional Office of Education, said he pushed for a cooperative high school that would take students from Venice, Madison and Brooklyn, but the idea met with resistance from each of the communities.
"They could've offered more classes, more athletics," said Briggs, now superintendent of the Granite City School District. "But they were petty."
This year, in the absence of the charter school, the remaining 31 high school students can attend either East St. Louis or Brooklyn school districts, both of which have agreements with Venice already. But many residents and school officials want the students to attend Madison Senior High School, arguing that the historical ties and proximity make that a more logical option. Besides, they say, dozens of Venice residents already attend Madison schools anyway.
The Madison School Board, however, voted against accepting the students. Nearby Granite City won't take them, either.
"It's my intention to get in touch with the Madison superintendent and board members and find out what their concern is about accepting students from the southern end, seeing as the kids from the northern end already go there," said Venice Mayor Avery Ware. "What's the issue? I want to get to the root of it."
Of course, many cities and towns don't have high schools of their own. But in Venice the lack of a high school hits a nerve.
"I think its important to this community and it would help the community itself," Ware added. "But our main concern now is to figure out where are kids going to go to school this year."
It's not too hard to imagine why Madison and Granite City won't take the students. Chances are, that under NCLB, adding more academically distressed African-American students could be just the tipping point to plunge a district into failure according to at least one and possibly two disaggregated groups under the law. The extra money the districts would get from the state for the new students would not make up for the hit in test scores the schools would take.
A similar thing happened after the St. Louis Public Schools lost their accreditation and were taken over by the state of Missouri. The elected board of the district-- now displaced by an appointed board but still attempting to maintain the facade of influence-- asked neighboring school districts NOT to accept SLPS students if they applied to transfer, as students are allowed to do in such a situation under Missouri law (as well as, I believe, NCLB). And the neighboring districts were more than happy to oblige, (here's an example from a district next door to the city of St. Louis) unsurprisingly. No one needs to take the hit in test scores that would occur if they took in students from a failed school district.
And that's the rub. Private schools certainly can pick and choose who they take, and they are also unaffordable for most students. Remember that even if people could be given vouchers, that money would be a fraction of what tuition costs in most private schools. Charter schools are expensive to run and cumbersome to regulate, and most universities and school districts want nothing to do with the hassle. It's too risky under NCLB for other public schools to accept students whose test scores will probably be very low.
Most proponents of vouchers whom I have met are people who already send their kids to private schools, and thus can already afford it and have already met the entrance requirements. They would just like a discount in the way of tax dollars. Unfortunately, if those schools are sectarian, this infusion of tax money would violate the establishment clause in the First Amendment. (My alter-ego the History Geek reminds you that an "established religion" is one that is supported by tax dollars. That's what those words meant when they were written, at a time when, for instance, Virginia taxed residents to support the Anglican church and Massachusetts taxed residents to support the Congregationalist church.)
So it's no surprise that students can find themselves unwanted if they try to abandon failing schools in this post-NCLB world. Isn't it ironic that NCLB could lead to the further erosion of educational opportunity for our most at-risk students?