Texas Pushes Harder to Make School Choice Work Measures This Month Put State at Vanguard of High-School Choice

Article excerpt

Tenth-Grader Joseph Stewart lives five minutes from Eastern Hills High School, but he wouldn't go there even if you paid him cold hard cash. Gangs rule the hallways of the East Ft. Worth, Texas, high school, and dropout rates are high. More than half the students failed statewide achievement tests last year. Thanks to a Texas school-choice law, Joseph has trans-ferred to a much better high school in nearby Arlington. The change of scenery, he says, has made all the difference. "Most kids in Arlington really care about their grades and want to go on to college," says the sophomore, who will return to Arlington's Lamar High School this fall. "My math teacher pushed us hard last year, but if you were doing bad, she'd let you come in early and she'd help you out." Still, while Texas is on the leading edge of a nationwide movement to give students more choice in high school education, Joseph is a rarity. Of the roughly 700,000 students eligible for transfers, only 50 have switched. But Texas is looking to change that. A law passed this month strengthens the state's two-year-old transfer program - making more students eligible for transfers, requiring school districts to notify parents of eligible children, and offering incentives for schools to accept transfers. While eight other states also have similar transfer programs, no other state requires that parents be notified about which schools are substandard. Some say this step may be the best hope in restoring trust in America's public schools. "Texas has been out front about ranking schools and saying who's not cutting it," says Kathy Christie, a policy analyst at the nonpartisan Education Commission of the States in Denver. "That's really one of the best sanctions against failing schools. Parents don't want to wait three years for schools to turn things around." Enacted in 1995, Texas' transfer program, called the Public Education Grant (PEG), allowed students to leave schools where 50 percent of students didn't pass the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills test in any of the past three years or where dropout rates are high. Now, under the new law, students can leave schools where 50 percent of students didn't pass the test in any two of the past three years. Nearly 1 out of 6 state schools has been deemed unfit. All the wrangling has taken place too late to affect this fall's classes, but advocacy groups say they have received hundreds of calls from parents interested in transfers. Transfer requests are due in February. While these efforts may have piqued interest in the program, getting schools to accept transfer students is a different story. The low response rate during PEG's first two years is not unusual in open-enrollment programs, where parents must ferry their kids to faraway schools. …