WASHINGTON - Many school districts are struggling to let students transfer from poorly performing schools to better ones, as required under federal law, a study finds.
Only 31,500 of almost 3.3 million eligible students transferred to other public schools in 2003-04, the second year of the education overhaul known as No Child Left Behind.
That amounts to about 1 percent of the eligible students, said the study released Friday by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress.
The GAO gathered data from 42 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, one of the broadest reviews to date of the school choice provision, a central element of President Bush's education policy.
Investigators also visited eight school districts around the country. They found school officials welcome the law's push for better performance but have struggled to give timely choices to students and clear information to parents.
Under the law, schools that receive federal poverty aid must offer transfers if they fail to make adequate yearly progress for two straight years among all groups of students.
Since Congress passed the law in 2002, about one in 10 schools receiving Title I poverty aid _ that's one in 20 public schools nationwide _ have been identified to offer transfers.
Districts are supposed to notify parents of the transfer option before the school year starts, but schools say test scores often are not ready in time to make that determination.
As a result, many districts rely on preliminary data on whether they must offer transfers, putting them at risk for incorrectly identifying schools and misinforming parents, the GAO found.
School leaders acknowledged the information they give parents is often less than clear; officials in two districts said parents believed their children were required to transfer.
And district officials often said they simply had no place to transfer students because other schools had no classroom space or were falling short on their own academics.
The Education Department has advised schools to be creative in handling that capacity problem, such as by adjusting portable classrooms or creating "schools within schools." School officials told the GAO they weren't sure how to make those ideas work or pay for them.
The GAO acknowledged the department's outreach to schools but urged the agency to provide more monitoring and advice in the common problem areas.
The department called the recommendations "important and reasonable" and said it will use them to help schools comply.
Current transfer data were not available from eight states: Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Michigan, Montana, Oklahoma, Wisconsin and Wyoming.
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