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Federal Law Takes Toll On Columbus School Enrollment.

Columbus school district leaders this week resume a round of public hearings on proposed school closings. Superintendent Gene Harris is pressing for a board decision by the end of January on the fates of three elementary schools and a middle school. The proposed closings occur even as the board renovates and replaces other schools with new buildings.

Student enrollment in Columbus Public Schools is declining. During the past seven years enrollment has fallen from more than 67,000 students to the current count of 56,000. The loss of more than 10,000 students coincides with federal and state changes in education policy. Early in the decade, Congress passed the "No Child Left Behind Act," designed to boost student achievement and reward schools who meet academic goals. Soon afterward, charter schools and school vouchers were sanctioned allowing parents a choice other than the local public school. Ohio State University College of Education Assistant Professor, Adrienne Dixson says the practical effects of "No Child Left Behind" and the establishment of charter schools on urban districts, such as Columbus, has been a loss of revenue and what she calls a "fixation" on testing. "I think more so now the pressure to perform well on standardized. There's more of a loss. And we see that in Columbus with more children leaving initially to go to charter schools because they are eligible to leave or they're eligible for vouchers because schools are deemed as failing because of their performance on standardized tests." Says Dixson.

Last month The Columbus Dispatch reported that the city has 70 schools where parents will be eligible for vouchers next year to pay for private-school tuition. During a hearing last week at Linden McKinley High School, Superimtendent Harris told a crowd of more than 100 people that the district has surveyed parents as to why they pull their children from the public schools. "There were two things, a couple of things, that parents said that made them leave the Columbus Public Schools. And one was, a major one, and its an issue that districts grapple with all over the country, is safety and discipline." Says Harris.

Harris adds the district has responded with programs to improve safety and discipline in the schools. Most of those who turned out at the Linden hearing last week though support and embrace their local public school. They asked board members to keep doors open next year at Linden Park Elementary and Linmoor Middle schools. George Poindexter, 59, offered a brief history of federal education law before he urged district leaders to spare the schools. "In 1964, Lyndon Baines Johnson signed into law the 'Elementary and Secondary Act,' of 1964, which allowed us to have a better education. George Bush came along in 2001 with the 'No Child Left Behind Act,'took our monies and gave it to private entities. Now, I see the same thing that this school district is doing, taking our children and moving them like cattle, sending them to different schools." Says Poindexter.

O-S-U Assistant Professor of Education, Adrienne Dixson says she believes Columbus is making changes and moving students for fiscal reasons. She says the challenge for Columbus Public Schools is to find a way where all students feel they belong. "I think there are more challenges in public schools, in part, again, because we attempt to educate everyone. And so, when groups of people come in from other nations and if they lack resources the first places they come are to public schools, and they should. So finding the resources to help people become acclimated to American public schooling and American society is a challenge." Says Dixson.

If the Columbus board decides to close Linmoor Middle school and Douglas, Linden Park, and Medary elementaries it will reduce classroom capacity. But, with thousands more students eligible for vouchers next year the district will face the possibility of more closures in the future. The next public hearing on school closings is scheduled Wednesday at East High on Arcadia. A final hearing is set next Tuesday at Marion-Franklin High School.

Tom Borgerding WOSU News.