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Thursday, June 23, 2011 11:22 am

School Choice waiver dropped

District 186 has decided not to ask the Illinois State Board of Education to approve a waiver that would have limited the number of Public School Choice notifications it sends out from more than 4,000 to about 40.

Public School Choice is part of the federal No Child Left Behind law that applies to Title I schools, generally those with poverty rates of 75 percent or higher. Title I schools receive additional federal dollars but must also comply with additional rules. One of those rules is Public School Choice (PSC), the requirement that, if a school fails to meet standards for two years in a row, it must send out letters offering all of its students the opportunity to move to a better-performing school.

Though the district must send PSC notifications to all students at a failing school, it doesn’t have to transfer everyone wanting to exercise the option. Last year, the district sent notifications to 4,108 students, only 128 of whom applied for a transfer. The district only moved 29 students, with priority given to the lowest-performing, lowest-income students.

District 186’s Title I coordinator Larry McVey had submitted a draft waiver to ISBE asking to send fewer PSC notifications than required by law. The waiver was included in the district’s Title I plan, which was scheduled for school board approval on June 6. With questions about PSC, the board delayed approval until June 20, by which time administrators had eliminated waiver language.

Superintendent Dr. Walter Milton says transparency was briefly mentioned during discussions but was not the main reason for administrators’ decision not to seek a waiver. He says sending PSC notifications only to a select few students at each failing school might have led some students to feel labeled. “It had a lot to do with making sure that we had equity and parity,” Milton says.

District spokesman Pete Sherman says the waiver was only a “draft idea” and never an official part of the Title I strategy. Sherman says he’s glad the waiver was initially included because it “gave an inside peek of how our district struggles to comply with NCLB.”

Though McVey previously told Illinois Times that students from Title I schools were only transferred to other Title I schools, Sherman says Butler elementary accepted 10 PSC students last year. Butler isn’t a Title I school but still has a high poverty rate.

The district didn’t offer the remaining non-Title I schools – with poverty levels ranging from 41 to 70 percent – as PSC options because of distance, larger class sizes and a lack of Title I-funded low-income supports, Sherman says. “We believe those are crucial services and we owe it to parents to make sure we’re not going to pull the rug out from under them by selling them an illusion.”

Asked why parents weren’t allowed to decide for themselves, Sherman couldn’t say but he added that last year about a dozen students who changed schools under PSC moved again within the same school year. “You’re talking about a low-income-type population that’s highly mobile.” He added that students who change schools repeatedly have difficulty transitioning, and teachers with several highly mobile students have a harder time getting to know them. “No child wins with that.”

Though last year Butler was able to meet NCLB standards with 76 percent of its students performing well on standardized tests, this year it might not, as NCLB standards rise and require 85 percent of students to meet testing standards. To be an option under PSC, schools must meet NCLB standards.

The only other remaining non-Title I elementary schools that met all standards last year were Hazel Dell, Lindsay and Marsh, none of which would meet standards if last year’s scores were applied to this year’s increased standards. Scores from this year’s testing are not yet available.

“Either way, it [a waiver] doesn’t resolve anything for us,” Sherman says. 

Contact Rachel Wells at rwells@illinoistimes.com

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