Failing schools will now be required to transfer children to other schools if parents request it, according to the new No Child Left Behind Act signed by President Bush last January. This is just one of many provisions in the new law, designed to give parents more of a choice in the education their children receive.

According to No Child Left Behind, schools must make "adequate yearly progress" (AYP) in reading and math achievement, a measure determined by the state board of education. While each state can determine what constitutes AYP, the federal government demands that all schools report a 100 percent proficiency in reading and math by the 2013-14 academic year. Schools that fail to meet their annual goal for two or more years in a row risk a number of increasingly harsh sanctions.

Earlier this year, the Michigan Department of Education published a list of 1,513 schools that are failing according to the Bush requirements, the greatest number of any state in the nation. The list represents over one-third of all Michigan's public schools.

Under the No Child Left Behind Act, school districts must notify parents if their children are in failing schools and that they have the option to transfer their children to other district schools. If parents choose to transfer their children, the failing district must pay for the attendant transportation costs by using part of their allotment of federal education dollars.

Schools that cannot admit all students from failing schools who wish to transfer must give first priority to the lowest achieving students from low-income families.

Failing schools also must develop a two-year school improvement plan, and a portion of the school's federal funding must be allocated to professional development for teachers. Failing schools also will be provided technical assistance for academic improvement.

If a school does not meet the Bush requirement for adequate yearly progress for three consecutive years, students become eligible for "supplemental services," which include tutoring and other services outside the school, aimed at improving a student's achievement. Each state must establish an objective procedure for certifying qualified providers of supplementary services, and districts must use a portion of their federal funding to pay for these services.

To comply with this mandate, the Michigan Department of Education's Office of Field Services has developed a supplementary services application process that requires prospective providers to demonstrate how their program will improve reading and math achievement. Providers must have the goal of improving students' Michigan Education Assessment Program (MEAP) scores.

If a school fails to demonstrate AYP for four consecutive years, the sanctions become more severe. In addition to continuing to provide a transfer option and supplementary services to students, the school district must take greater action to improve the school, which they can do in a number of ways. For example, they may replace relevant school staff, implement new curriculum, decrease management authority at the school itself, appoint an outside expert to advise the school on how to improve, extend the school day or school year, or restructure the school entirely.

If a school fails to meet AYP for five consecutive years, the school must be restructured, which can be accomplished by reopening it as a charter school, replacing the staff, contracting with a management company to operate the school, or turning the school over to the state.

While the changes outlined above are significant, they may not be implemented in a timely fashion. The first problem is that, by the beginning of this school year, some of the federal regulations regarding how states were to implement the new law had yet to be issued. This occurred in spite of the fact that the law demands that school improvement plans be in effect beginning with the current academic year.

This federal foot-dragging is having a domino effect in the states. In fact, in advising them of their obligations under the Act, Michigan Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Watkins recently told local superintendents by letter that their school districts "will not be expected to implement" the school improvement provisions of the new federal law. To comply under these conditions, wrote Watkins, would be "a little like trying to land an airplane as the runway is being built."

But even as the foot-dragging spreads, don't expect states to pass up the additional federal dollars that come with the No Child Left Behind Act. According to the White House, Michigan will see its federal education funding jump by more than 30 percent between 2000 and 2002, for a total of $1.4 billion this year.

What changes this new money will bring to education in Michigan remains to be seen. Advocates of school choice hope it will be used to expand public school choice programs and educate parents about their rights under the Act.

But some administration officials are doubtful that the current Michigan Department of Education will go to great lengths to improve education and provide more options for parents and students, since Michigan already boasts of limited charter school and public schools-of-choice programs.

In fact, Susan Shafer, spokeswoman for Gov. John Engler, recently told The Detroit News, "The way we see it, nothing much changes."

There can be no doubt, however, that the No Child Left Behind Act will codify limited public school choice into federal law. And that will be a positive change, not just for students in Michigan, but across the country.

For more information, see www.nochildleftbehind.gov.