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. …