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'No Child Left Behind' Misses Some: Law applies to Poorer Students Only if Schools Get Federal Grants

A Lake Tahoe-area school district runs two middle schools: one in Truckee, one in Tahoe City. Both are failing to meet federal education standards, but only the Tahoe City school is being pressured by the federal government to improve.

The Truckee school isn't poor enough.

Even in name, the No Child Left Behind education law, which President Bush signed in 2002, promised to apply tough standards universally, but parents and teachers are discovering a huge loophole in it.

Sanctions for failing schools - starting with offering tutoring and transferring students to better schools and eventually closing the failing ones - apply only to those getting specific federal grants.

Because the grants are offered only to high-poverty schools, those in wealthier districts don't face federal penalties for not meeting standards. But because many schools eligible for federal money don't accept it, even some of the students supposedly targeted by the law - poorly performing students from low-income homes - are being left behind.

At least 13 schools in the Sacramento region would be facing penalties if they were receiving the grants. Statewide, at least 445 schools fall into that category, according to a Bee analysis of state education data.

"There is a general idea out there that it applies to every student at every school," said Scott Loehr, assistant superintendent for instruction at Center Unified School District in Antelope. "The sanctions obviously do not."

Districts are free to assign the funds to schools with two constraints: Those with more than 75 percent of students in poverty must receive a grant, and those with less than 35 percent cannot.

And so Sierra Mountain Middle School in Truckee, where a quarter of students were in poverty last year, faced no sanctions even though it failed to pass federal standards the last two years. North Tahoe Middle School in Tahoe City has the same academic record but nearly half of its children live in poverty. It is in its third year of federal scrutiny.

The disparities between California schools forced to comply with the federal law and those that aren't will become even more stark next year.

For the schools that face sanctions, 2005 is the first year they could be shut down. And even more schools are expected to be labeled as failing next year, because twice as many students will be expected to be proficient in English and math for a school to meet standards.

By 2014, the state Department of Education expects nearly all the state's 9,000 schools to be labeled failing because the federal law will require all students to be proficient in math and English, which many education officials believe is an unrealistically high bar.

But even then there will be formal consequences only for those schools that receive federal grants, known as Title I funds.

That makes George Griffin one of the lucky ones, in his eyes.

He's principal of Winters High School, where about 50 percent of students are poor. Last year, his school met 21 of its 22 No Child Left Behind criteria.

Because of the one he missed - too few of his school's English learners were judged proficient in English - the school is considered failing.

Four years ago, Griffin was given the option of accepting Title I money. He declined - believing that the $12,000 his school would receive each year wouldn't be worth the added red tape and that the money could be better spent on younger grades.

That decision means Griffin won't be penalized now for being one measure short of perfect.

"After No Child Left Behind came out, am I thrilled to death that I said no? You bet," he said.

Many districts favor younger grades for Title I grants.

Nationwide, about two-thirds of elementary schools, but only one-third of high schools, receive Title I funds, said Jack Jennings, director of the Center on Education Policy in Washington, D.C.

In Elk Grove Unified School District, the largest in Northern California, no Title I schools are failing. The district directs those federal funds only to its elementary schools. So, federal sanctions aren't a threat for three of its high schools and a middle school that are below standards.

Elk Grove has decided to concentrate all its Title I money on the younger grades, because that's where the district believes the cash can make the biggest difference, said Nancy Lucia, Elk Grove's director of learning support services.

Still, that means omitting Valley and Florin high schools from the strictest provisions of No Child Left Behind. At both south Sacramento schools, test scores aren't meeting federal standards and a majority of students last year were poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, the most common measure of poverty.

Both Lucia and Griffin emphasized that the schools are diligently trying to improve student achievement, even if they don't face federal sanctions.

Indeed, many schools not in Title I are in a state program for low-performing schools that also includes a system of grants and penalties. But unlike the more rigid federal standards for achievement, the state's accountability system is individually tailored, requiring only that schools show a certain percentage of growth from year to year.

Other provisions of No Child Left Behind, including the requirement that teachers be "highly qualified" in the subjects they teach, apply to all schools.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education said the department requires sanctions only for Title I schools because that is how the law was written.

A spokeswoman for Judd Gregg, the Republican chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said it "hardly seemed fair to apply the federal accountability system to schools that do not receive federal education dollars."

The law passed Congress with bipartisan support in 2001, but has since been attacked by Democrats who believe the Bush administration has not provided the program enough money.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the committee's ranking Democrat, said through a spokeswoman that even without consequences for low performance, non-Title I schools benefit from No Child Left Behind.

"The evidence is clear - high standards, good teachers, and accountability for results are the right reforms for every public school," Kennedy said.

Frank Ramos, whose five children have attended Winters High, said he agreed with the school's decision to opt out of Title I. He's deeply involved with the school and believes that Griffin, the principal, is doing what he can to improve scores for English learners. If the school had accepted Title I money, it could have been penalized.

"The strings that would have been attached to it would have made it very difficult for us," Ramos said.

Low scores - but penalty free
These schools failed to make adequate yearly progress under No Child Left Behind the past two years. Because they don't receive federal grant money for high-poverty schools, they don't face federal sanctions. Schools that receive that money face sanctions after two years of missing the federal standard. Some of these schools have enough poor students to qualify for the grant money, but their districts have decided to spend the money elsewhere. Other schools fall short of the threshold - 35 percent of students labeled as poor - to receive the money.

— Michael Kolber
Sacramento Bee


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