State Loses School Grade Clash
By Lloyd Dunkelberger
TALLAHASSEE -- The federal government has rejected Florida's effort to shield some high-poverty schools from sanctions ranging from requiring costly tutoring programs to allowing students to transfer to other public schools, a state education official said.
It's a major setback for Florida's argument that the federal government shouldn't penalize schools that had been given an A or B rating under the state improvement plan but were flunked by federal regulations.
Twenty-five Polk County schools fell into that category in the 2004-05 school year.
The decision means the confusion between the labels of the state's A-Plus plan, which was enacted by Gov. Jeb Bush, and the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which was supported by President Bush, will continue.
This year, for instance, the state Department of Education gave 67 percent of Florida's schools an A or B rating, while the federal government flunked 62 percent of the schools.
The difference is because the state system looks at a school's overall student performance on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, whereas No Child considers achievement in minority student groups.
The decision also means, just as the new school year is starting, some districts that have a high number of Title I schools, which get federal money to help impoverished students, may now face added costs in trying to provide tutors for those schools or in transporting children to new schools.
State Education Commissioner John Winn disclosed the federal decision in a memorandum sent to the state's 67 school districts Monday.
It marked the culmination of months of negotiations between state and federal officials over the issue.
Earlier this year, state education officials and Gov. Bush advanced a plan that would give a "provisional" progress label to schools that didn't pass the federal standards but had earned an A or B under the state's A-Plus plan criteria. State officials argued while those schools couldn't meet all of the federal standards, the state evaluation showed many of the students in those schools were making substantial progress.
Under the state's proposal, high-poverty schools with the provisional label would not face sanctions if they earned an A or B rating from the state.
Title 1 schools that earned lower grades under the state evaluation did not qualify for the provisional label and would have faced sanctions regardless of the state-federal negotiations.
In his memo to the local districts, Winn said the federal officials have allowed the approximately 825 schools to retain the "provisional" label, but some high-poverty schools will still face sanctions under the NCLB law.
"Like many of you, I am disappointed with the final result of our negotiations," Winn said. "However, I look forward to the opportunities we may have as we work with (federal officials) toward reauthorization of NCLB."
Critics of the state and federal education standards said the decision shows the flaws in the governmental attempts to assess scholastic progress in the nation's fourth-largest state.
Damien Filer, a spokesman for Communities for Quality Education, a group allied with the state's teachers' union, said the decision demonstrates "the one-size-fits-all federal education law can't be fixed by bureaucratic Band-Aids."
He said the failure to resolve the differing standards between the federal and state programs means many schools may be "mislabeled" as failures and harshly penalized by the federal government.
"The provisional AYP (adequate yearly progress) fiasco is another indictment of a system that is failing Florida schools and students," Filer said.
Winn said although the state wasn't able to soften the sanctions, retaining the "provisional" label was an achievement.
"Through this new designation, your A and B schools will continue to be regarded as the high performing schools they are without the perception of a need for systemic school reform," Winn told the districts. "The focus and attention will be placed on the students that truly need assistance."
Winn also said the state will continue to work with the federal government to try to blend the state evaluation standards with the NCLB.
He said as early as the next school year, some state measures regarding "learning gains" may be incorporated into the federal standards. "I will continue to keep you apprised of changes on the horizon as these discussions progress," he said.
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES