School districts can open cyber charter schools to fulfill parents’ school-choice requests, especially in cases where there is no room for additional students at the district’s high-performing schools, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) said regarding its final regulations for implementing the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB).

The final rules—which are more stringent than expected—say school districts must offer transferability options to students from failing schools, regardless of issues such as overcrowding or class-size limits.

“In situations where it is a real challenge to offer school choice to a child—where all the schools in the district are full—the Undersecretary has said school districts need to be creative, and cyber charter schools or distance-learning [programs] are options they can offer,” ED spokeswoman Melinda Malico said.

The final regulations, called “Title I—Improving the Academic Achievement of the Disadvantaged: Final Rule,” were published in the Dec. 2 Federal Register, eleven months after NCLB was enacted. The rules are meant to clarify how states and school districts should implement NCLB and address state accountability systems, adequate yearly progress, school improvement, teacher qualifications, and more.

In August, ED asked the public to submit comments on regulations proposed for Part A of Title I, which is a $10.4 billion federal education program designed to close the achievement gap between disadvantaged students and their peers.

ED received more than 700 comments from approximately 140 groups and individuals. The changes to the proposed regulations reflect those comments, ED said.

The most significant change concerns school choice. School districts must “take measures to overcome capacity issues” and offer transferability options to students from schools labeled for improvement, corrective action, or restructuring—despite existing challenges such as class-size limits, overcrowding, and health and safety requirements.

In earlier discussions of the law, ED officials had said a lack of capacity would be an acceptable reason for denying a parent’s transfer request.

The new interpretation could force school districts to add more classes and hire additional teachers so they can comply with school-choice requirements while adhering to class-size restrictions.

Health and safety factors can play a role in determining which schools students may transfer to, ED said, but this issue should not remove a school district’s obligation to accommodate a parent’s choice.

In summary, a school district “may not use the lack of capacity to deny an eligible student the opportunity to transfer to another school not identified for improvement.”

While cyber charter schools might help ease the school-choice burden, some education experts fear this new obligation—coupled with existing accountability and achievement pressures and state budget shortfalls—could hamper investments in school technology. The concern is heightened because NCLB allows school officials to transfer federal technology funds to other programs.

Any district not identified for “improvement” can transfer up to 50 percent of its formula allocation under the Teacher Quality State Grants, Educational Technology State Grants, Innovative Programs, or Safe and Drug-Free Schools programs to supplement its allocation under any of the programs listed above, said Norris E. Dickard, senior associate at the Benton Foundation.

“In states and districts where leaders feel [educational technology] is not delivering a return on investment, half of those funds can be transferred elsewhere. Likewise, where ed tech is seen as central to improvements in teaching and learning, ‘new’ resources are available—at the expense of other programs, of course,” Dickard said. Some analysts believe school officials will feel pressure to funnel money away from educational technology to meet NCLB’s other requirements.

“Block grants are highly Darwinistic; the money goes to the need that squeaks the wheel,” said Arnold Fege, director of public engagement and advocacy for the Public Education Network. “If a school district and superintendent aren’t shown how technology can increase test scores, there’s going to be a decrease in investment in it.”

Mary Kusler, legislative specialist for the American Association of School Administrators, said many school districts continue to spend funds on education technology, but there is tremendous pressure on funding at the local level.

“When it comes to public school choice, the cost is passed onto local school districts,” Kusler said. “A lot of these costs can’t be paid with federal dollars; [districts] have to use local funds.” School districts will have to pick and choose their priorities, she said: “It’s going to depend [from] school district to school district.”

Raymond Yeagley, superintendent of the Rochester School District in New Hampshire, said that despite NCLB’s requirements, technology spending will vary from district to district depending largely on how effectively the district has used technology to date.

“Without question, there will be districts where technology has not been fully integrated, is not used effectively, and is viewed by some community members as a ‘frill.’ In those districts, technology could be a big loser in the budget process,” Yeagley said.

“Conversely, I suspect that districts that have been successful in demonstrating that the technology is an integral part of achieving their educational mission will be in less danger of losing technology funding, at least enough to support their current level of operations and keep the system working smoothly.”

Overall, investing in technology to manage data remains crucial because of NCLB, observers say.

“There’s no way states and districts can collect and disaggregate data … without technology,” Fege said.

Assuming school officials know how to collect, organize, analyze, and use data for instructional improvement, Yeagley said, “I believe that use of technology to track student progress and assess school effectiveness can help to reduce the number of schools found to be inadequate.”

SUMMARY OF FINAL REGULATIONS

Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP)

The final regulations allow states to use their current state accountability system, providing this system integrates “adequate yearly progress” as defined by NCLB. States must submit evidence to ED that thoroughly describes the state’s accountability system and how it meets the required AYP provisions.

The original guidelines proposed allowing alternate AYP standards for students with significant cognitive disabilities, providing the number of students didn’t exceed 0.5 percent of the total student population. Owing to confusion, ED has decided this issue needs further clarification and will undergo another Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) shortly.

School Improvement, School Choice, and Supplemental Services

Several comments expressed concern that schools and districts could be identified for improvement incorrectly because this designation is decided upon at the beginning of the school year, before some states have released the most recent assessment results. The final rules still maintain the same deadline, but now require states to provide assessment data “in such time as to allow for the identification.”

When identified for restructuring, a school must achieve AYP for two consecutive years before it is no longer required to offer school choice and supplemental services.

Concerning school choice, districts are required to transfer students from schools identified for improvement, corrective action, or restructuring if requested, despite existing challenges such as class-size limits or overcrowding. This could mean adding new classes, hiring more teachers, or even starting virtual programs so the district can comply with school-choice requirements while adhering to class-size restrictions.

States and school districts are responsible for ensuring that approved supplemental service providers can serve students with disabilities. States and school districts also must ensure that students with limited English skills have appropriate supplemental services and language assistance.

To fund school choice and supplemental services, school districts are required to spend an amount equal to 20 percent of their Title I, Part A allocation, unless a lesser amount is needed to meet the demand. Districts are free to determine how much money will pay for choice-related transportation and how much will pay for supplemental services, providing they spend at least 5 percent of their Title I, Part A funds on each. Also, this 20 percent does include administrative costs.

Teacher Quality

Because it was unclear whether teacher-quality requirements applied to special education and English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers, the final rules state that these teachers also must meet the same standards for content knowledge as other teachers. The final rules allow flexibility in determining how teachers meet NCLB’s “highly qualified” requirements. ED plans to release additional information on this flexibilit soon.

Links:

“Title I—Improving the Academic Achievement of the Disadvantaged: Final Rule”
http://www.ed.gov/offices/OESE/SASA/cepprogresp.html#reg

No Child Left Behind Act of 2001
http://www.nclb.gov

Final Rule as Published in Federal Register
http://www.ed.gov/legislation/FedRegister/finrule/2002-4/120202a.html