(This post was co-authored by Evelyn B. Stacey, Education Studies Policy Fellow at the Pacific Research Institute in Sacramento, California.)
In recent weeks, there has been national media coverage of school officials’ zero-tolerance zealotry. What isn’t covered, however, is more troubling still: the failure to enforce at-risk students’ Unsafe School Choice Option, which occupies just a few lines of the federal No Child Left behind Act (NCLB).
Earlier this month as some school officials were securing the cafeteria against a camping utensil-carrying Cub Scout, the New York Times recounted the tragic death of a 16-year-old football player in Chicago-the 67th death in 2007-08 school year that occurred before, during, or after school. Last week the Jersey Journal reported that two Bayonne High School students were transported to the hospital after being stabbed during an after-school brawl.
Similarly The Detroit News reported numerous shootings in or around the city’s public schools this year, acknowledging that “for each high-profile shooting, there are hundreds of assaults and other violent crimes on school campuses that go unreported each year.” Furthermore, the Detroit Police Department reported that they have responded to 68 robberies, 1,189 fights, and 30 concealed weapons offenses in the city’s public schools from July 2008 to April 2009.
In California, The San Francisco Chronicle informed readers of a former San Mateo high school student who came to school armed with 10 pipe bombs, a chainsaw, and a sword. He detonated two of the bombs before being subdued by school staff, and thankfully no one was injured. Still, shouldn’t parents of students in schools like these be allowed to transfer their children to other schools if they believe it’s in their children’s best interest?
Under NCLB, students who are victimized at school are automatically eligible to transfer to another public school within the district-if one exists (See D-12). Other students, however, could have to wait years to transfer to a safer public school using NCLB’s Unsafe School Choice Option. NCLB requires states to define persistently dangerous schools (PDS), and students attending those schools are then eligible to exercise their Unsafe School Choice Option. But states’ PDS definitions, largely crafted by public school representatives, can require up to three years’ worth of disciplinary actions for specified offenses before schools can be considered dangerous. Even then, state PDS definitions are so narrow it is nearly impossible for any school to be labeled dangerous.
In fact, of the country’s 90,000+ public schools, less than 50 are identified as persistently dangerous each year (See p.1, bottom). Consequently, NCLB’s Unsafe School Choice Option is of little help to students at risk. Consider, are students in states with no identified PDS schools such as Illinois, Michigan, or even California, where not one of its more than 9,000 schools has ever been deemed dangerous, really safer than students in states like New Jersey, which has identified 14 persistently dangerous schools from 2002-03 to 2006-07?
This is yet another example of the failure of government management over schools. Students should not have to be victimized or wait years at a time before their parents can take decisive action. The proper role of government should be to provide accurate and timely information about public schools, then empower parents to act on it. No “czars” needed.