The 2003-04 school year saw the first widespread implementation of the new federal education law’s chief accountability measures. Districts with schools that had persistently failed to make “adequate yearly progress” in their test-score performance were required to offer the students in those schools options ranging from a seat in a higher-performing public school to free tutoring services. These measures were intended to stimulate competition, provide students with better alternatives, and punish underperforming schools in the hopes that they will improve.

As the following essays report, the process has been uneven, at best. A number of issues, some administrative, others owing to districts’ intransigence, have kept the share of students exercising their right to transfer to another public school below 1 percent. Meanwhile, districts have had more success in providing eligible students with free tutoring. In part this reflects the fact that private tutoring firms, including marquee names like Kaplan, Sylvan, and the Princeton Review, are eager to carve slices from this new market. School districts, anxious about losing their federal dollars, are also designing their own tutoring programs.

Whether any of these sanctions will lead to better schools, it is too early to know. At the moment, many school officials seem to view them more as nuisances than levers for reform. And parents, for their part, remain poorly informed about their new options. That will need to change if the law’s promise is ever to be fulfilled.

William G. Howell provides an inside look at one school district’s efforts page 26

Michael Casserly reports on big cities page 32

Last updated June 30, 2006