No Child Left Behind Act:

Education Needs to Provide Additional Technical Assistance and Conduct Implementation Studies for School Choice Provision

GAO-05-7: Published: Dec 10, 2004. Publicly Released: Dec 10, 2004.

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The school choice provision of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLBA) of 2001 applies to schools that receive Title I funds and that have not met state performance goals for 2 consecutive years, including goals set before the enactment of NCLBA. Students in such schools must be offered the choice to transfer to another school in the district. GAO undertook this review to provide the Congress a report on the first 2 years of the implementation of NCLBA school choice. GAO reviewed (1) the number of Title I schools and students that have been affected nationally, (2) the experiences of selected school districts in implementing choice, and (3) the guidance and technical assistance that Education provided. GAO collected school performance data from all states, interviewed Education officials, and visited 8 school districts in California, Illinois, Ohio, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Washington.

About 1 in 10 of the nation's 50,000 Title I schools were identified for school choice in each of the first 2 years since enactment of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLBA) of 2001. The proportion of schools identified for choice varied by state. About 1 percent of eligible children, or 31,000 students, transferred in school year 2003-2004. However, little is known about the students who did and did not transfer or factors affecting parents' transfer decisions. Education has launched a study that will yield some information on these topics. Officials in most of the 8 districts GAO visited said they welcomed NCLBA's emphasis on improved performance, but had difficulties providing choice because of tight timeframes and insufficient classroom capacity. Final state determinations of the schools that met state yearly performance goals were not generally available before the school year started, so offers of transfers were based on preliminary determinations. District officials expressed concern that parents had inadequate time and information to make an informed decision. Parents were offered at least 2 possible schools as transfer options, but many of these schools had not met state performance goals in the most recent year. Because of limited classroom capacity in 4 of the districts, some students did not receive the opportunity to transfer. For students who transferred, transportation was provided on school buses, public transit or personal cars, and most districts spent less than 7 percent of the pool of funds that NCLBA required be set aside for that purpose in school year 2003-2004. Education issued extensive guidance on choice. However, the complexity of providing school choice raises a number of issues that have not been addressed in guidance available through October 2004, such as how to handle cases where schools receiving transfers later are identified for choice and how to expand capacity in the short-term within budgetary constraints.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In school year 2006-2007 the Education teams that monitor Title I implementation included members focused on public school choice in an expanded number of districts. Education's study of Title I from 2001-2004 found the two school choice challenges most often cited by districts concerned capacity: 50% reported as great or moderate challenges the lack of space in alternate schools and the requirement to create more space. Education considered whether additional flexibility or guidance might be warranted. They allowed 15 districts in 5 states to provide supplemental services prior to school choice on a pilot basis. However, they did not grant flexibility in terms of capacity (e.g., classroom, building space) and plan on stricter enforcement of school choice requirements to deal with this capacity issue.

    Recommendation: To help states and districts implement choice and to gain a better understanding of its impact, the Secretary of Education should monitor issues related to limited classroom capacity that may arise as implementation proceeds, in particular, the extent to which capacity constraints hinder or prevent transfers. Based on this monitoring, Education should consider whether or not additional flexibility or guidance addressing capacity might be warranted.

    Agency Affected: Department of Education

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: As of FY06, ED reported that its website features a video clip on Miami-Dade that provides general information on school choice for use by parents. However, the web site does not provide specific implementation aids for districts to help them deal with capacity, costs, or the complex issue of how to afford priority to school choice transfers and maintain magnet school lotteries or other eligibility criteria. In FY09, ED officials reported that it had developed several guides and publications for school districts that provide specific examples and aids to assist districts with implementation, capacity and costs issues. One outcome of these guides addressed how districts have been making public school choice programs work effectively. The Building Choice web site ( has a toolkit that was an additional outcome from research collected during the case study-benchmarking process. School officials wanted more examples of practical information and tools from districts across the country that were identified as having promising practices related to school choice. The web site provides new ideas, tools and models that can be adapted, as well as multiple examples of implementation issues. For example, guides on creating and sustaining successful magnet schools includes lessons learned and school profiles that discuss building school capacity, cost issues, the use of lotteries and admission criteria.

    Recommendation: To help states and districts implement choice and to gain a better understanding of its impact, the Secretary of Education should collect and disseminate additional examples of successful strategies that districts employ to address capacity limitations and information on the costs of these strategies.

    Agency Affected: Department of Education

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Education's website provides a link to a toolkit developed by a contractor that includes a template for a parental notification letter, along with actual examples of steps taken in 18 districts to communicate with parents and inform them of the requirements and opportunities presented by school choice. Results of the parental surveys were published in April 2008.

    Recommendation: To help states and districts implement choice and to gain a better understanding of its impact, the Secretary of Education should assist states in developing strategies for better informing parents about the school choice option by collecting and disseminating promising practices identified in the course of working with states and districts. For instance, Education might collect and share examples of clear, well-written, and particularly informative notices. In addition, Education should make the results of its parental surveys, conducted as part of its national study, widely available for use by states and districts to help them better refine their communications with parents regarding school choice.

    Agency Affected: Department of Education

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: A July 2007 report from the National Longitudinal Study of No Child Left Behind found no significant effect on achievement for students participating in Title I school choice, with the exception that students with disabilities achieved lower scores in math following transfers. The study compared achievement over several years of students who did and did not transfer in 6 urban districts, taking into consideration student demographics as recommended.

    Recommendation: To help states and districts implement choice and to gain a better understanding of its impact, the Secretary of Education should, for its student outcomes study, use the methodology with the greatest potential to identify the effects of the school choice transfer on students' academic achievement. The methodology selected should allow it to compare academic outcomes for transferring students over several years with outcomes for similar students not transferring, while accounting for differences in student demographics. The study should also examine the extent to which transferring students remain in the schools to which they transfer.

    Agency Affected: Department of Education


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