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Educators See Grim Humor in U. S. Order to Flunk Districts

Nothing gets California education policy wonks rolling in the aisles faster than a discussion of No Child Left Behind.

State educators have made little secret of their dislike for the federal law, but their frustration Wednesday boiled into laughter - if only to avoid tears.

The issue at hand was whether the state Board of Education should go along with a federal demand that it classify 184 of California's 1,000 school districts as "failing," including seven in the Sacramento region.

Sell It Yourself
The board felt it had no option. At one point board member Ruth Bloom asked, to raucous applause from those in attendance, "What if we went against what the government said?"

The answer: The state could lose millions of dollars in federal education funding if it didn't comply with the law. The board approved the classification.

But because many of those school districts now described as failing are highly rated by the state, districts and California officials were left describing the law as "schizophrenic."

"The current methodology is crazy. It's upside down," state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell told the board. "This is a temporary resolution with a gun held to our head."

O'Connell said he would continue to try to seek concessions from the federal government regarding No Child Left Behind. He said California would explore working with other states like Utah, which has discussed forgoing some federal education funds to circumvent provisions of the law.

O'Connell, a Democrat in an elected position, also joked, "I'll call the governor this afternoon and ask him to circulate a petition for a secession movement."

Much of the frustration Wednesday centered on the fact that districts like El Dorado Union High School District and Western Placer Unified School District, which are in the top half of state rankings, are now labeled as failing by No Child Left Behind.

"It saddens me for a school district that just won the Academic Decathalon," said Roger Yohe, the superintendent of 4,300-student Western Placer Unified in Lincoln. "We're disappointed that the state criteria is that stringent."

Only one of Western Placer's seven low-income schools is considered failing, and officials expect to move that school off the list this year. The district was labeled as failing because too few of its students with disabilities were proficient in reading and math.

Western Placer, like all school districts labeled as failing, will have to notify parents of the status and develop a new plan to improve student achievement. If the districts remain in the failing status, they could be taken over by the state or face other severe penalties.

Federal education officials were unavailable Wednesday. But they have said in the past that No Child Left Behind is designed to raise expectations for all students. The U.S. Department of Education has said it may negotiate issues surrounding disabled students or English learners with individual states.

Wednesday's decision represents a compromise. Last year, the state identified only 14 districts as failing, but a federal audit said in December that number should be as high as 310.

The federal government announced Tuesday that it would accept the state's new definition for failing districts - officially called "program improvement districts."

Many of the districts in the Sacramento region now labeled as failing are, indeed, lower performing and have many schools that already have been individually labeled as failing.

Larry Buchanan, the superintendent of the Grant Joint Union High School District and the Del Paso Heights Elementary School District, both of which made the new list, said he was uncertain what the designation would mean. But he vowed to continue improving student achievement.

North Sacramento Elementary, Winters Joint Unified and Woodland Joint Unified school districts are also on the list.

Being labeled as failing means the school districts can only contract with outside companies to provide tutoring under No Child Left Behind. They can't do it themselves anymore.

A representative from Los Angeles Unified School District said at the state board meeting this provision was particularly frustrating because Los Angeles, now on the failing districts list, was recently lauded by the U.S. Department of Education for its tutoring program.

About the writer:

* The Bee's Michael Kolber can be reached at (916) 321-1962 or mkolber@sacbee.com.

— Michael Kolber
Sacramento Bee


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