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Published in Print: January 14, 2004, as Pennsylvania District Says Ratings Unfair In Suit Against State

Pennsylvania District Says Ratings Unfair In Suit Against State

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A Pennsylvania school district is suing the state for failing to provide the money and the tools it needs to ensure its schools will make academic progress under federal law.

The 16,700-student Reading district claims that 13 of its schools aren't making the required "adequate yearly progress" under the No Child Left Behind Act because the state department of education failed to give them enough money or translate state tests into Spanish for the district's predominantly Hispanic population. The district, the state's fifth largest, filed the lawsuit Dec. 11 in the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg.

"They should be measured on a fair evaluation system, and their education should be funded equitably and adequately," Melissa Jamula, the district superintendent, said of Reading's Hispanic students.

The lawsuit asks the court to prohibit the state from labeling Reading schools as in need of improvement until the state creates Spanish-language tests and has paid the district enough to meet all of the mandates under the No Child Left Behind Act. The suit does not specify how much the district believes it needs to comply.

State officials said that the district's problems, while obstacles to meeting the goals of the federal law, aren't unique to Reading.

"The issues they raised are issues that could have been raised by other districts," said Brian Christopher, the deputy press secretary for the department of education. "There are other districts in the same sort of situation."

While Reading likely faces an uphill legal battle, one legal expert said the district's lawsuit illustrated educators' frustration as they work to comply with the 2-year-old federal law.

"The symbolic importance of this is that a school district ... has reached a point of such frustration that it filed a lawsuit," said Thomas Hutton, a staff lawyer for the National School Boards Association, in Alexandria, Va.

That frustration is fed, Mr. Hutton contended, by the Bush administration's efforts to establish private-school- choice in the District of Columbia. The proposal is part of an appropriations bill that has passed the House and is pending in the Senate. "It has raised suspicions among educators that the agenda of the act isn't about leaving no child behind," he said

Unfair System

Two years after President Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act into law, local school officials across the country are starting to feel its impact.

Last fall, Pennsylvania named almost half of its 2,786 public schools as failing to make adequate yearly progress, or AYP, under the rules of the No Child Left Behind law, a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The law covers the Title I program for disadvantaged students and many other K-12 programs.

After appeals to state officials, the total number of schools deemed to fall short of adequate progress has been reduced by 240, according to Mr. Christopher. ("Pa. Adapts to New Federal Education Law," Oct. 8, 2003).

In Reading, 13 of 19 schools have been identified as failing to make adequate improvement. The state rejected the district's appeals to change the status for each of those schools.

Superintendent Jamula said many of the schools were unfairly identified because the state hasn't created Spanish-language tests to gauge the reading and math skills of students with limited proficiency in English, even though they must take the tests. The federal law requires the state to provide tests in an English-learner's native language. Sixty-four percent of Reading's students are Hispanic, and 11 percent are in programs for students with limited English skills, the superintendent said.

What's more, the state and federal governments aren't providing enough money to pay for interventions in the schools that are not reaching AYP goals, she said.

No Time to Wait

The district decided to go to court instead of waiting for political solutions, Ms. Jamula added, because efforts to change the federal law or to alter how Pennsylvania implements it would take too much time. Six of Reading's schools have failed to make AYP targets for a second year, meaning they are subject to sanctions such as offering students the choice of transferring to higher-performing schools in the district.

If a school is unable to improve before changes are made to the law, Ms. Jamula said, the district might have to shut it down. "Some very good schools with excellent teachers could be disbanded," she said.

Ms. Jamula said the district expects that its lawsuit will go to trial this spring.

Vol. 23, Issue 18, Page 16

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