Howard’s school transfer policy leaves families behind, parents say

Originally published in the Baltimore Examiner

MPPI in the News Mike Silvestri, Examiner Staff Writer Oct 19, 2008

It began as a way to control overcrowding, school officials say, but a Howard County limit on student transfers has spiraled into a debate over students' right to choose.

Michelle and Timothy Wood tried in January to transfer their 5-year-old son, Alex, from Bryant Woods Elementary, which is about three miles from their Columbia home, to Clemens Crossing, which is about half that far. Neither school is overcrowded, but the school system denied the transfer because, officials said, there was no justification for an exception to the transfer moratorium in which students must attend the school in their district.

The Woods have spent the 10 months since their request's rejection scrutinizing the transfer policy, winning the support of education reformers, including the Maryland Public Policy Institute.

They claim the county is using its power over where students attend school to manipulate the numbers to make each school looks its best.

"I think that what motivates them is that they're trying to manipulate their test scores, in part because of No Child Left Behind," Michelle Wood said.

The school system rejected the accusation. "That's absolutely false," said Patti Caplan, spokeswoman for schools. "It has to be extreme and unusual circumstances that allows a student to move, and it can't be just because you looked at a school and decided it's not good enough for you."

She said that years ago, when the transfer policy was more lax, it was difficult to get a handle on enrollments.

Meanwhile, school choice has grown increasingly popular in wealthy and low-income areas. Baltimore City schools CEO Andres Alonso is one of a number of rising educators on the national scene who has made school choice and competition between schools a driving force behind improving the system.

"It's a consistent problem with leaving control at the level of school districts and within the education bureaucracy," said Adam Schaeffer, education policy analyst at the Cato Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based research group. "They have interests that are not necessarily the same as schoolchildren and their families."

In the past eight years in Howard, seven of 10 of the highest-minority populations had below-average approval rates, while nine of 10 of the lowest-minority populations had above-average rates, according to the Woods' analysis of data provided by the county.

And employees, who are allowed under the policy to transfer their children to schools where they work, received transfers to schools where they did not work about 82 percent of the time such requests were made, according to the data.

But the school system said the analysis is faulty.

"These are individual decisions based on individual circumstances," according to the system's decision upholding the rejection of Alex's transfer. "Valid conclusions cannot be drawn from a generic reason category and the final decision."

The Woods' appealed the county's decision to the state school board, which has yet to rule on the case.