January 25, 2001
Educational facts of life work against California
Crowding impedes school-transfer law
By DANA WILKIE
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE
WASHINGTON – It might be one of the most provocative parts
of the new education law that President Bush recently signed: If
a school fails to teach a student well enough, the child can
transfer to a better campus, and even get free transportation.
A student can, that is, if the school has room.
In California, that's the catch.
Booming enrollment, crammed classrooms, tight budgets and a
large number of uncredentialed teachers will, in some cases,
make it difficult to turn the law into reality in the Golden State,
California education officials say.
Bush, who signed the bill Jan. 8 after making it a top domestic
priority, argued unsuccessfully that providing parents with
taxpayer-financed vouchers would have eased just this sort of
situation by letting parents also send children to private or
The law allows children in failing or dangerous schools to
transfer to better public schools, and to get federal money to
pay for their transportation. Under the law, it is up to the states
to define when a school fails or becomes dangerous.
California already lets parents send children to other schools,
though many students, including those in San Diego County,
cannot go to schools outside their district just because they
want a better school.
They can do so only for certain reasons, such as if a parent is
employed nearby, or if they are applying for a special magnet
course, said Patricia Trandal, program manager for the San
Diego Unified School District's enrollment options division.
Because better schools tend to be in more affluent
neighborhoods – typically far from poorer areas where the
worst schools can be concentrated – the cost of transportation
can be prohibitive. The state pays travel costs for some student
transfers in San Diego County, but not all. The new law would
help in that respect.
"There's not a whole lot of extra money (in poorer families) for
even $1 or $2 a day to take public transportation to another
school," Trandal said. "If we could provide transportation, which
we cannot because we don't have the money or buses, it would
help a lot."
Students who attend what the law calls "persistently dangerous"
schools also can choose a new campus. Lack of uniformity
among schools' crime reports – not to mention the
repercussions of labeling a school dangerous – will make it hard
for the state to make this designation, said Debbie Rury, federal
legislative coordinator for the California Department of
"Would you want to be the state superintendent who says to
these parents, 'Your child's school is unsafe?' " Rury said. "It
seems to me you should be saying in the next breath, 'And we're going to close it down.' "
Last year, two students were killed and 18 people were wounded in two shootings that occurred less than three weeks apart at Santana and Granite Hills high schools. While crime and drug offenses declined at San Diego city schools last year, possession of knives and other nonfirearm weapons increased from 232 incidents to 276.
The new federal law places new emphasis on phonics-based
reading, and requires a new regimen of tests in math, reading
and science. California already has mandatory testing and
accountability. California is expected to get $5.4 billion from the
education bill. That represents about 18 percent more than the
current year, or an extra $836 million.
Even with the new law's flexibility and transportation money, it
might be hard for California parents to help their children get
better educations. California schools are among the most
crowded in the country, and money to build new ones or expand
existing ones is notoriously tight. The state's popular class-size
reduction program has put added pressure on school space.
Last year, the San Diego Unified School District could honor
fewer than half of the 36,000 requests from parents who wanted
to switch their children to different schools.
"There just are not that many schools with a lot of space
available," Trandal said. "Some schools can take everybody (but)
. . . they're down some long and winding road not close to a
highway, and it's not easy for parents to drop (kids) off."
The new law says lack of space is not a good enough reason for
denying a child the opportunity to transfer to a better school.
The law offers no extra money to build classrooms. If class space does not exist, said one state education official, the opportunity offered by the $26.5 billion federal education bill is meaningless.
Gov. Gray Davis supports a proposed ballot measure that would
issue $30 billion in bonds in the next six years to pay for school
construction for kindergartens through senior high schools and
$2 billion for community colleges.
The new federal law also requires there be a "highly qualified
teacher" in every classroom by the end of the 2005-06 school
year. It provides nearly $3 billion for training and hiring.
California will get $334 million to meet the teacher-quality
That means in four years, every one of California's 301,000
teachers must be fully credentialed. The state, pinched for
teachers, has allowed thousands to begin teaching without full
Right now, one out of seven is not fully qualified to be in the
classroom. By 2009, one out of five won't be, according to a
study by the Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning in
"With that number so high, the question is: Do we have enough
preparation programs to allow us to build the capacity of fully
prepared teachers?" said Adrienne Harrell, the center's deputy
Dan Langan, spokesman for the U.S. Education Department, said
the "status quo is really unacceptable."
"This is the law," Langan said. "So it's incumbent on states to
come up with a plan that will ensure that students are receiving
instruction from qualified people."
If, after three years, a school district's teachers are not on the
road to getting fully credentialed, the state can seize control of
the federal money intended for teacher training, bypass the
district's administration and give the money directly to schools
and their teachers.
Education officials doubt California can get all its teachers up to
speed in the time allowed. They say their views did not have
much effect on the Bush administration.
"We put our 2 cents in," said Rury of the state education
department. "But the attitude (at the U.S. Education Department) is pretty much, 'Well we want to see you really, really, really try before we're going to back off (the requirement).'
"I think we'd have to really, really increase resources before
you're going to be able to pull that kind of task off."