The flaws of the No Child Left Behind law are well known, most notably the unrealistic expectation that every student in every school will be proficient in math and English by 2014.
Alas, none of us lives in Lake Wobegon, the fictional town where all children are above average — and a little over a year from now, almost all of our schools will be labeled failures.
What's less widely recognized is that sanctions for failing, or missing interim benchmarks, apply only to those schools that receive federal funding for socioeconomically disadvantaged students. That's why two neighboring schools can miss their targets yet only one suffers any direct consequences.
Consider the example of Analy and El Molino high schools in western Sonoma County. Neither met all of its target for this year, but only El Molino receives Title I funding. As a result, students are free to transfer to Analy, exacerbating a steady erosion of the Forestville campus, where enrollment has fallen by half since 1998.
This year, 58 of the 72 freshmen who transferred from El Molino to Analy cited federal sanctions as the reason why.
To remedy that, West County school Superintendent Keller McDonald suggested refusing the federal money, which adds up to about $150,000 a year.
"It would relieve us from the program improvement sanctions immediately, instantly," he said at a town hall meeting this past week.
Returning the money may be the right choice for El Molino, and McDonald may have the resources to do it. On Nov. 6, west county voters renewed a $48-a-year parcel tax for the high schools. Moreover, with approval of Proposition 30, state funding for public schools should start stabilizing.
But eliminating federal sanctions isn't a panacea.
El Molino was shrinking years before Congress passed No Child Left Behind, largely because enrollment was declining in the elementary districts that feed into the high school. And if it weren't for El Molino transfers, Analy would be shrinking, too.
Meanwhile, open-enrollment laws and the rapid expansion of charter schools have expanded options. Many students and parents shop for the best fit, regardless of any district boundaries.
That isn't going to change even if the west county district shakes off a federal mandate to allow El Molino students to leave. A year ago, before El Molino entered its second year of federal sanctions, 26 freshmen transferred to Analy. Just one cited the sanctions as justification.
El Molino has passionate supporters, as was made clear at the town hall meeting last week. The school has been recognized by the state for academic excellence and, despite missing some targets, its test scores are solid if not spectacular.
Some high schools have added special programs or cultivated ties to Sonoma State University or Santa Rosa Junior College to attract more students. That may be the best model if El Molino wants to attract more sutdents, because the days of restricting choices already have been left behind.