Most parents and policymakers believe public schools in middle-class neighborhoods are safe. They likely would change their minds if actual safety statistics were more transparent.

Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) students may transfer to another public school under the Unsafe School Choice Option provision if their current public school meets the state definition of persistently dangerous. Because states define unsafe schools so narrowly, less than 50 public schools out of nearly 100,000 nationwide are labeled persistently dangerous each year.

This analysis reviewed the first five years of federal safe schools policy, school years 2003-04 through 2007-08, and finds it is giving parents a false sense of security about their children's schools.

Available safety statistics reveal around half of all violent and serious violent crimes are concentrated in a small fraction of schools nationwide; however, such crimes are not limited to those schools. Specifically:

  • Around 80 percent of public schools report violent criminal incidents, and almost 20 percent of public schools report serious violent criminal incidents. Federal agencies also note that the amount of crime on school campuses is substantial, and students are more fearful at school today than in the past.
  • Close to half of all schools report incidents of theft, and more than two-thirds of schools report criminal incidents involving weapons, drugs, alcohol, and vandalism. Although such incidents do not involve actual violence, they have a destabilizing effect on students' sense of well-being and can compromise their learning.
  • Crime statistics are similar for suburban and urban public schools, as well as higher and lower minority-student enrollment schools. Close to one in five urban and suburban schools report incidents of violent crime, and less than 10 percentage points separate high and low minority enrollment schools across criminal incident categories, including violent crime and serious violent crime.

Yet statistics do not tell the whole story, and federal agencies note that school violence is more prevalent than the NCLB persistently dangerous schools and Unsafe School Choice Option annual reports indicate because available school safety data are based largely on surveys and tallies of disciplinary actions, not actual safety incidents. It can take up to three years before schools can even be considered persistently dangerous and only under specified conditions. Worse, perverse incentives contribute to school officials underreporting the information necessary for parents to make informed decisions about the safety of their children’s schools.

States are also not required to track the number of students requesting or using the Unsafe School Choice Option. Interviews with officials from more than 40 state education agencies, school districts, and local schools in eight states with schools identified as persistently dangerous revealed states are not systematically tracking students transferring under the Unsafe School Choice Option provision, making it impossible to assess its effectiveness in providing students safe school options.

Students should not have to wait years at a time or become victims of violent crime before their parents are allowed to transfer them to safer schools. The findings in this analysis show the failure of the current bureaucratically-driven, regulatory-compliance model to ensure school safety and indicate the urgent need for a common-sense, parent-driven reform. This analysis recommends that states adopt a Safety Opportunity Scholarship (SOS) Program and includes model legislation for state lawmakers.

An SOS Program would empower parents to transfer their children immediately to the safe schools of their choice within or beyond their resident school districts, including public district, charter, and virtual schools, as well as private schools. The proposed SOS Program would fulfill the stated goal of NCLB that "All students will be educated in learning environments that are safe, drug free, and conducive to learning" and is based on recommendations from the U.S. Department of Education and other federal agencies. An SOS Program also would have five advantages over the current NCLB persistently dangerous schools (PDS) mandate:

  • Schools would report meaningful safety information;
  • actionable information for parents would replace the PDS stigma on schools;
  • students at risk would have immediate safe school options;
  • students at risk would have more safe school options; and
  • states and schools could realize improved cost efficiency.