Failing school districts in California face sanctions
SACRAMENTO – Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Wednesday recommended severe or moderate sanctions for nearly half the 97 California school districts that have persistently failed to make progress under the No Child Left Behind Act.
Those districts, responsible for educating nearly one-third of California’s public school students, face sanctions for the first time under the federal law because they have failed to meet achievement goals for four years.
Around the lake, Tahoe-Truckee Joint Unified School District in Placer County is among the failing districts.
Schwarzenegger has vowed to make California the first state in the nation to embrace the penalty aspect of the law. But he said state leaders had worked hard to make sure the penalties were in proportion to the problems in each district.
“It’s not a hostile takeover,” Schwarzenegger said at Northwood Elementary School in Sacramento, where he toured the campus. “We are going to work with the schools.”
If it had not intervened, the governor’s office said, the state would have risked losing up to $45 million in federal money to help turn the districts around.
The proposal Schwarzenegger reached with Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell calls for teams of experts to intervene and devise ways to boost student achievement.
Seven school districts face the harshest sanctions, which eventually could include replacing administrators or a takeover by the state.
They are: Greenfield Union Elementary in Monterey County; Arvin Union Elementary and Fairfax Elementary in Kern County; West Fresno Elementary in Fresno County; Ravenswood City Elementary in San Mateo County; Keppel Union Elementary in Los Angeles County; and Coachella Valley Unified in Riverside County.
Coachella, a district in far southeastern California with a high migrant population, faces the harshest sanctions. O’Connell wants the Riverside County Office of Education to become trustee of the district and will recommend that action to the state Board of Education.
Schwarzenegger favors using the same approach for each of the seven school districts, which begins with a performance assessment.
Coachella Valley Unified Superintendent Foch “Tut” Pensis said he was disappointed in the possibility that his district would be appointed a trustee.
He said his students, who are nearly all poor, have made some progress in recent years, even if they haven’t met the benchmarks of the federal law.
“I understood that we needed harsh sanctions, but putting a trustee here in a district that’s continued to make progress – I don’t think it’s needed,” he said.
Coachella opened itself to harsher sanctions by accepting a $2 million grant in 2005 to improve instruction for English-learner students.
On the list are 96 failing school districts and the Orange County Office of Education, which has responsibility for running some schools.
The failing districts have been split into four groups under the plan – those facing severe, moderate, light and other action. For many, that will mean teams of education experts that will assess the districts’ curriculum, testing, teacher quality and other issues.
They will then recommend action to the state Board of Education, which must approve Schwarzenegger’s plan before it can take effect.
Those deemed to need only light assistance will get technical help with problem areas, such as English-learner students or students with disabilities.
Schwarzenegger’s embrace of No Child Left Behind marks a departure from the state’s opposition to the 6-year-old law, said Russlyn Ali, director of Education Trust-West, an Oakland-based policy and research group and a member of the Governor’s Committee on Education Excellence.
But she is worried about how the state will pay for and implement the interventions. That concern is magnified by a state budget deficit of $16 billion and Schwarzenegger’s own proposal to cut $4 billion in education spending in the budget year that begins July 1.
“On the one hand, I think it is magnanimous that the state is saying to these districts, ‘You do not have to shoulder this burden alone.’ On the other, don’t make false promises,” Ali said. “If you’re telling them you’re going to shoulder the burden of this, then bring it.”
Some other states have begun to take action against consistently underperforming school districts, but none has approached the task in such a comprehensive way or faced challenges on such a daunting scale.
The districts facing sanctions are collectively responsible for educating about a third of California’s 6.3 million students, nearly half of whom are considered poor. About a quarter do not speak English fluently.
The federal law sets broad benchmarks but leaves it up to states to implement the law, and some are further ahead than others.
Unlike initiatives in other states, California would implement a sliding scale of intervention actions depending on how poorly the districts have performed.
The affected California districts have schools that have failed to meet their goals under the law for each of the past four years.
Many have been quick to note that they have made progress, particularly in educating subgroups of students such as English-learners or minorities. But that is not enough under No Child Left Behind, which sets ever-higher expectations each year.
“You could do tremendous work every single year, but it doesn’t count for a single thing under this law. What message does that send?” said Sherry Griffith, a legislative advocate for the Association of California School Administrators.
The group has met with state leaders as they negotiated the intervention plan, but Griffith said she is worried the state will establish an accountability system around a federal law that could change when it is reauthorized by Congress.
The top Democrat and Republican on the Senate Education Committee have said they would put off rewriting the law until later this year.
In his State of the State address in January, Schwarzenegger said he would make California the first in the nation to embrace the authority it was given under the federal law “to turn these districts around.”
“No more waiting,” he said. “We must act on behalf of the children.”
In a visit last month to California, U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings praised the governor’s intervention plan for the 97 districts.
Schwarzenegger has focused on the plan as the state struggles with a budget deficit that largely derailed his proposed “year of education reform” and forced him to propose major cuts to education.
He also has recommended suspending Proposition 98, the landmark education funding law voters approved in 1988. That has prompted a statewide opposition campaign by the powerful California Teachers Association and its allies.
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