Oakland Sued Over Compliance With School Report Card Rules

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California’s Oakland Unified School District is being accused in state court of failing to include all the required data on report cards that are meant to inform parents and the public about student achievement and school financial data—and this may not be the last such court challenge.

The announcement of the lawsuit by San Francisco-based Public Advocates Inc. coincided with the release of the group’s third annual report Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader on how well California districts are complying with state rules on the school accountability report cards. The organization reviewed reports from 876 schools in 20 districts across the state. While it found some improvement in the timeliness of districts’ release of the reports, it noted that 60 percent of the schools still are not providing all the required data.

Lawyers at Public Advocates have also warned eight other districts in California that they are facing possible legal action because they haven’t met the report-card regulations.

“Parents and community members have a right to vital information so they can evaluate the state of their schools and take actions to improve them and the learning opportunities for their children,” Jenny Pearlman, a staff lawyer for Public Advocates, said in a press release.

The law firm and advocacy group filed a lawsuit Aug. 13 in superior court in Oakland, saying that not only are accountability report cards for many Oakland schools lacking information such as per-pupil spending figures, but that they also have not been available by the annual May 31 deadline for the past two years.

Because the 41,000-student district has been under state control since 2003, the lawsuit also names California Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell and Kimberly Statham, the state administrator for the Oakland district. Earlier this summer, the Oakland school board regained control of some operations.

Hilary McLean, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Education, said it was unfortunate that Public Advocates resorted to filing a lawsuit.

Troy Flin, a spokesman for the Oakland district, said the suit came as a surprise and a disappointment because school officials have been working with Public Advocates to address the group’s concerns.

“We’re close to being fully compliant,” he said. “It would be different if we had been unresponsive to their request.”

Unreadable, Unattractive

The use of the school report card was mandated as part of Proposition 98, a school finance measure approved by California voters in 1988. While the state legislature has made several adjustments to the report card through the years, a 2005 study by three law professors at the University of California, Los Angeles, found the document to be confusing, densely written, and even hard for people with advanced college degrees to understand.

Putting the report card through some common readability tests, the professors found that it was harder to follow than some Internal Revenue Service forms or information sheets on prescription drugs.

Even those in charge of preparing the reports say parents complain that the reports are too long, complex, and unattractive, according to a survey of report-card “coordinators” conducted by the state education department last year.

The need for better and more accessible data also was cited as one of the keys to improving the state’s finance and governance systems in a package of research reports released earlier this year. In “Getting Down to Facts,” researchers concluded that data collection needs to be improved so the state can determine whether the money being spent on education is making a difference in student achievement. ("California’s Schooling Is ‘Broken’," March 21, 2007.)

Ms. Pearlman of Public Advocates agreed that the accountability report card can be hard to interpret, but she said that schools still need to work within the “parameters” of the law.

“It’s the one piece of information out there that provides site-level data,” she said.

She added, however, that Public Advocates has pushed for an earlier release date—Feb. 1—to give parents more time to bring issues to the attention of school administrators and to compare schools in order to determine whether they want to seek transfers for their children.

Streamlining, or summarizing the information in the reports, she said, might also make them more useful.

Vol. 27

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