New Rules Hold Up Md. Student Transfers

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 3, 2002

Plans to allow students in Montgomery and Howard counties' poorly performing schools to transfer to designated high-achieving schools ran into trouble this week when new federal regulations indicated the counties are not giving parents enough choice.

Montgomery and Howard were among the first school districts in the country to set up busing programs for parents who wanted to take their children out of struggling schools under the new No Child Left Behind federal education law. Both school districts paired each low-performing school with a high-performing school that would receive transferring students.

But buried in 245 pages of proposed federal regulations released Thursday was a section that said school districts must "offer the parents of each eligible student a choice of more than one school" if the district has more than one school that is performing well.

"It's very frustrating," said Reginald M. Felton, director of federal relations for the National School Boards Association and president of the Montgomery County school board. He said educators were adamant during negotiations in Congress that the law did not give school districts enough time to comply.

"But that fell on deaf ears," he said.

The new regulation will affect plans for 118 failing schools in Maryland, 12 in the District of Columbia and 35 in Virginia.

In Montgomery County, 10 schools that receive federal Title I funds for high poverty, with two years of falling test scores, were designated as underperforming. In May, officials paired each school with one of 10 higher-performing schools nearby that had space and held a series of meetings for parents who wanted their children out. About 100 students applied for the 800 available slots.

"The law gave us such a short time frame," said Chrisandra Richardson, director of Title I programs in Montgomery. "We tried to implement a plan that adhered to the letter and spirit of the law. We did that."

Montgomery Superintendent Jerry D. Weast said the new regulations -- which districts will have 30 days to comment on -- were coming late in the game.

In Howard County, 49 students have opted to transfer out of six failing schools that were paired with four higher-performing schools. School spokeswoman Patti Caplan said the pairing was done on purpose. "We didn't want the children to be isolated," she said. "And we wanted to save on transportation."

Indeed, the transfer programs will be costly. School districts, under the new law, can use Title I funds that are usually earmarked for classroom resources to pay for busing. Montgomery County has set aside $700,000.

In Prince George's County, more than 700 parents have signed up to transfer their children out of 10 underperforming schools and into four higher-performing ones. Right now, there is space for only 100, school spokeswoman Athena Ware said.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education noted that Education Secretary Roderick R. Paige had written to state education departments June 13 "strongly encouraging" states and school districts "to provide several choice options for parents." But that was a month after Montgomery County and other districts announced their paired-school busing plan and began to take applications.

"These changes come too late for us," Caplan said. "School starts August 26. And we don't want to be moving kids after school starts. If they say we have to, obviously, we'll comply. But this is frustrating."

Ron Peiffer, assistant Maryland state school superintendent, said the state would contact federal officials about two possible options: change the busing plans immediately to allow more choice or seek permission to keep the paired-school plan for a year while designing something else for 2003.

The Education Department spokeswoman said federal officials had already gathered much reaction to their plan for wider parent choice and doubted that the proposed regulation released Thursday for public comment would be changed.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company