Law likely to increase student transfers in public schools

Public school parents who want to transfer their children to a school across town now have a shot.

This month, Gov. Sonny Perdue signed House Bill 251 into law. Starting this fall, students can attend any school in their system as long as it has room and isn’t brand new.

The only other option parents had until now was to enroll their children in magnet or charter schools or school choice transfers that allowed children to leave when their home school failed under No Child Left Behind.

“I was in real favor of intra-district transfers,” said Rep. Tony Sellier, R-Fort Valley, a House Education Committee member. “I think it gives parents a little more latitude.”

The bill, he said, was intended to help those families who move to a larger city and buy a home based on a particular school but later find their child’s needs are not being met.

It was also aimed to help students who are put on a school bus for long rides to school when there are other schools closer to their homes, he said.

The new law takes effect July 1.

School systems will have to notify parents each school year of all schools eligible to take transfers.

Parents would have to provide their own transportation. And the law would not apply to newly opened schools for a period of four years after the school first opens.

“I know it may cause problems with school districts,” Sellier said. “But sometimes we have to focus on what’s best for kids.”

In Bibb County, the system just ended a desegregation lawsuit that allowed minority-to-majority transfers that allowed students to transfer in similar fashion.

“We just came out of a desegregation order that eliminated us doing that” and are now opening the door back up, Superintendent Sharon Patterson said. “Here we are with all sorts of potential programs in a short period of time.”

Most Bibb elementary schools and even some middle and high schools may be eligible for transfers, but school officials would have to soon pin down a list of schools with capacity, said Bibb school board member Gary Bechtel.

“It means more costs in terms of managing transfer requests and establishing capacity,” he said.

“It also usurps local districts ability to create, manage and enforce attendance zones.”

If a school gets an influx of requests, school officials also worry it may require shuffling and/or hiring new teachers.

School officials are still grappling with how to define whether a school has room and the state won’t have a model board policy for school systems to follow by July 1, because of the late timeline in which the law passed, said Dana Tofig, spokesman for the Georgia Department of Education.

School Superintendents had a conference call with State Superintendent of Schools Kathy Cox this past Thursday to get some direction and give input before a draft is sent to the state board for approval this summer, he said.

Until then many systems are on standby.

“As with any other law that is passed by the General Assembly, we will adhere to the law,” Houston County schools Superintendent David Carpenter said. “We are waiting for the guidelines. ... and will go forward once these regulations are received.”

The law says reassignment to a transfer school would only be approved if classroom space is available after the school’s assigned students have been enrolled. The legislation would also not affect No Child Left Behind Act transfers.

“I think parents would use it,” said Bibb County school parent Octavia Haugabrook. “My kids have always gone to school out of zone.”

Haugabrook said a lot of parents like her look to send their children to schools closer to their work sites or ones with after-school programs available.