Many parents are finding that even when they try to transfer their children under provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind law, neighboring schools often aren't performing any better - and if they are, they often don't have space for newcomers.
Education improvement activists say the promise of transferring to a better school is a fundamental flaw in the No Child law, disappointing parents when they discover the roadblocks to making such a switch.
In Connecticut, new state figures show that students in about 160 elementary and middle schools and dozens of high schools could request transfers because their schools haven't met federal standards for at least two consecutive years.
Most are in Connecticut's struggling cities, and many have fallen short of standards for up to seven or eight years.
"That's an awful lot of schools where kids would be there for their entire tenure," said Alex Johnston, a New Haven school board member and chief executive officer of ConnCAN, the Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now.
Last year, only about 2 percent of eligible Connecticut students' parents requested a transfer. In the end, less than half of 1 percent changed schools, according to state Department of Education preliminary figures released last week.
That trend has held true for the last several years and is close to national transfer figures.
Milly Arciniegas, whose eighth-grade son attends E.B. Kennelly School in Hartford, said the letter she gets each year about his transfer options is meaningless since other nearby schools are full or in the same straits as her son's.
"What you're telling me is 'Your son is in a need-of-improvement school and here are your options,' but it's a joke because there's no other choice," said Arciniegas, who advocates requiring more openings in suburban districts.
"That whole No child Left Behind is kind of hypocritical. If you're not going to make room for us in other districts, then why have a law like that? It makes no sense," she said.
The Obama administration is proposing an update in the law that would remove the transfer provision, but some members of Congress are concerned because they don't want parents to lose that option or the chance to get special tutoring for their children.
Thomas Murphy, a spokesman for Connecticut's Department of Education, said that while the number of transferring students remains low, many are participating in the after-school tutoring and other services they can get instead.
"You have to keep in mind that when a student transfers, it's not just the school or educational program they are leaving. It's also their friends and their neighborhoods," he said.
In some districts, there's nowhere for a student to transfer anyway.
In New Haven, Hartford and several other Connecticut cities, the solution has been to overhaul some of the struggling schools themselves rather than just waving goodbye to those few students who get a chance to transfer elsewhere.
In Hartford, the SAND Elementary School - once the city's worst-performing elementary school on standardized tests - transformed last year into America's Choice at SAND, with a longer school day and overhauled curriculum with an intense focus on reading and writing.
"What parents in Hartford are doing now is becoming better advocates for our kids and holding teachers and principals accountable so they can make our schools successful. That's the ultimate goal," said Arciniegas, the Hartford mother, who's also president of the citywide Parent Organization Council.
In New Haven, the Katherine Brennan School reopens Sept. 1 with a longer school day, more professional development programs and other changes. Johnston, the ConnCAN leader and school board member, said Brennan and others dubbed "turnaround schools" also include more accountability for teachers and more parent involvement.
"If you focus on just a demand-side solution by giving parents the possibility of a transfer but haven't done anything to address the low supply of attractive schools, you're really not solving the problem," he said.