A group of parents whose children attend poorly performing public schools yesterday sued school systems in New York and Albany, N.Y., alleging that the students have been denied the right to transfer to better public schools or receive free tutoring as required by the federal education reform law enacted last year.
Education activists said the class action lawsuit, filed in state court in Manhattan, is the first in the nation brought under the No Child Left Behind Act, which imposes federally mandated penalties on schools with persistently low standardized test scores.
Last summer, the federal government estimated that 3.5 million children attending 8,600 low-performing public schools across the country had the right to choose another public school or free tutoring under the law. While exact figures are unavailable, school choice advocates said only a small fraction of eligible students have exercised those options, which were envisioned as key elements of the law.
"I've seen no state or local school district make a declaration that they are not going to provide choice or supplemental services," said Eugene W. Hickok, undersecretary of education, who added that he did not know the specifics of the New York case. "But I have seen less than energetic implementation of the law."
Under the federal law, schools that receive federal Title I funds and fail to show improvement for two consecutive years -- including the years before the new law was enacted -- must offer students the option of transferring to better-performing schools. If a school fails to improve for three years, local school districts must offer tutoring or other supplemental services.
Paul Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, said many school superintendents are still unsure of their obligations under the new law. "There is a lot of confusion, a lot of frustration and a lot of a sense of not knowing what it is they are supposed to do," he said.
David Chai, a spokesman for New York City Board of Education, said the school system last summer sent parents nearly 300,000 letters in eight languages informing them of their right to transfers and another 250,000 letters informing parents of the availability of tutoring. Still, he said, only 1,500 students requested transfers, while another 20,000 are now receiving tutoring.
The lawsuit asks that the school districts set aside money to provide tutoring this year, notify parents again that the remedies are available and facilitate mid-year transfers to other schools if requested.
"There certainly hasn't been the kind of clear-cut communication that is as extensive as it needs to be about this law," said Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform, a Washington organization that supports vouchers and other school choice options. "First, school districts tried to skirt their responsibility because they didn't buy into it. Now, it seems, they are trying to do the least possible to comply."
A report released in November by the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, an activist group with branches across the country, found that local school districts had not given enough information to parents about their rights under the No Child Left Behind Act.
Last month, the Foundation for Educational Reform and Accountability, an Albany group that advocates school choice, released a poll that found 85 percent of parents with students in failing schools in New York City were unaware that the schools had been deemed low-performing. The survey also found that 94 percent of parents indicated they would "likely" request a transfer to a better school if they knew about that option.
Overall, 331 schools in New York City -- roughly a quarter of the schools in the nation's largest system -- are designated as failing under the law, according to the suit. In Albany, the suit says, three schools with a total of just more than 2,000 students are considered failing. Nationally, many education experts fear that a large share of the nation's schools could be designated failing within several years, and many will have to offer transfers and tutoring to students.
"These school districts, through their actions and inaction, have denied hundreds of thousands of children these basic rights," said Charlie King, the New York attorney who filed the suit. King said he plans to amend the lawsuit to include parents from other cities.