Getting Kids Out of Dangerous Schools
Imagine a national law stating that students who have been victims of a violent crime at school, or who are simply attending classes in a building considered "persistently dangerous," are automatically entitled to a safer placement — and that states that fail to provide this option will lose federal education funding.
As it turns out, such a statute was actually passed by Congress 14 years ago as part of President George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act. According to Section 9532, any state receiving federal dollars under NCLB must define for itself what constitutes a "persistently dangerous" school and establish written procedures delineating how endangered children will be transferred elsewhere.
Unfortunately for America's most vulnerable children, almost every state education department has to date been more inclined to skirt the intent of Section 9532 than to implement it. With what sadly appears to be a greater concern for protecting the jobs of failing teachers and administrators than for providing security to students, state officials have allowed local boards of education to aggregate the data on violent incidents within their districts, effectively masking the identities of the worst schools.
Principals have also been permitted to define violence by criteria more characteristic of adult offenders, such as kidnapping and murder, and to skip reporting instances where student bullies were let off with a warning. Indiana has allowed the designation of "persistently dangerous" school to be overturned by a panel of outside safety experts, while Florida has permitted the label to be revoked by a vote of parents, students, and district personnel.
As a result of such watered-down policies, fewer than 100 of the nation's 92,000 public schools were labeled "persistently dangerous" when NCLB was first passed. For the 2012-2013 school year, the most recent period for which the U.S. Department of Education has cumulative data, just 45 were thus tagged.
As depressing as these statistics first sound, there is a hopeful exception to the near-universal evasion of Section 9532 — and a surprising one given the power of public-employee unions in this very blue state. A lopsided 31 (or 69 percent) of the schools in the 2012-2013 period cited above were in New York State. And while even that number likely represents but a small fraction of the truly troubled schools in Albany, Rochester, Buffalo, Syracuse, and of course New York City, the Empire State has nonetheless accounted for the majority of persistently violent schools reported to the federal government over the last decade — this in spite of continuing protests by local teachers and administrators.
Much of the credit for New York State's above-average compliance goes to its Board of Regents — a supervising committee for the state department of education — which developed its own violence-detection system even before Congress passed NCLB. Because the regents had insisted from the outset that state data on dangerous schools be reviewed regularly for reliability and that superintendents promptly adopt any needed improvements, the board simply used its own school assessments to satisfy the federal reporting requirements in Section 9532.
The important lesson to be learned from New York is that, once a state's education authority does begin to take seriously the task of identifying unsafe schools, there is little that public-employee unions can do to dilute enforcement by lobbying their legislatures. According to an analysis by the Education Commission of the States, all but two state departments of education have felt free to both interpret and implement the persistently-dangerous-school provision without statehouse approval.
What all this means is that any governor seriously interested in reducing the number of unsafe schools in his state already has the ability to do so by instructing the state department of education, a part of the executive branch, to adopt measurements that accurately identify dangerous settings. The CDC's estimate of 749,200 annual violent incidents in American schools — with 7 percent of public-school students victimized annually — could, in theory, be dramatically reduced through unilateral administrative action.
If this sounds too good to be true, it must be added that having the power to remove vulnerable children from dangerous placements and knowing one has that power are not the same thing. By simply keeping their mouths shut, risk-averse bureaucrats in departments of education across the country have thus far managed to keep their governors in the dark while quietly diluting the criteria for identifying unsafe schools.
One person who does understand what the governors could potentially do on their own is John B. King Jr., President Obama's recently designated replacement for Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who steps down in December. A longtime school reformer, King served as New York State's Commissioner of Education until 2011 and worked closely with its Board of Regents to make public schools more accountable.
Very soon, then, someone intimately familiar with Section 9235 will have sufficient visibility to both educate the nation's governors on the extent of their veiled prerogatives and to prod them into action. It will be interesting to see how aggressively King decides to exercise this leverage.
Lewis M. Andrews was executive director of the Yankee Institute for Public Policy from 1999 to 2009. He is the author of To Thine Own Self Be True: The Relationship between Spiritual Values and Emotional Health (Doubleday).