Image: First-grade students perform an experiment at Las Palmitas Elementary School
Damian Dovarganes  /  AP
First-grade students perform an experiment at Las Palmitas Elementary School in the Coachella Valley Unified School District earlier this year. The Coachella Valley Unified School District is considered one of the worst in the state and faces sanctions under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
updated 5/10/2008 3:05:33 PM ET 2008-05-10T19:05:33

At Las Palmitas Elementary School, nestled between rundown homes and fields of grapes, peppers and dates in Southern California, 99 percent of students live in poverty and fewer than 20 percent speak English fluently.

Las Palmitas and other schools in the Coachella Valley Unified School District are just the type policy makers had in mind when Congress passed the federal No Child Left Behind Act in 2001 to shed light on the disparities facing poor and minority children.

Nineteen of the district's 21 schools — including Las Palmitas — have not met the federal law's performance benchmarks for four years. Now the entire district faces sanctions for the first time.

"We have hardworking, dedicated, trained teachers like everybody else. They've got to teach a language, they've got to teach the content, and they've got to counter poverty," said Foch "Tut" Pensis, the district's superintendent. "We are the poster child for NCLB."

California has 97 school districts that failed to meet their goals under the law for four years, more than twice as many failing districts as any other state so far. Kentucky has the next highest number facing sanctions, with 47.

Nationwide, 411 school districts in 27 states now face intervention.

Over the next few years, hundreds more districts are destined to enter the next phase that California already has begun. The state has ordered districts to undergo everything from reporting how they are implementing the federal law to having a team of specialists assess every aspect of their operations. In the most extreme cases, California districts could be subject to a state takeover.

Looking for answers
How California and the other states will turn around those struggling districts is unclear.

"No one, on a large scale, has figured out how to solve the achievement gap," Pensis said. "Everybody's looking for that answer."

If they need better teachers and administrators, it's not apparent where they will come from. Some federal money is available, but it's unlikely it will be enough to cover all the failing districts.

Many states already are losing revenue due to the sliding economy. California's budget deficit for the fiscal year that begins this summer is projected to be anywhere from $15 billion to $20 billion.

No Child Left Behind sought to shine a light on inequality in the nation's education system, where schools have been accused of setting lower expectations for poor and minority children. Nationwide, black and Hispanic students consistently lag behind their white and Asian peers in performance, a chasm referred to as the achievement gap.

The law also set tough goals for districts to demonstrate steady improvement.

Sliding scale of punishment
U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings says California is taking the right steps. It is the first state to take widespread action against all its districts that have failed to meet the achievement target set by No Child Left Behind.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the state's elected Superintendent of Public Instruction, Jack O'Connell, proposed the sliding scale of punishment for the 97 districts — which are responsible for educating nearly a third of California's 6.3 million students.

Their approach reserves severe measures, such as replacing administrators or a takeover by the state, for districts that have shown the least improvement.

"He is the first governor to kind of embrace this law, to take it on himself, to be acting for it, and in keeping completely with the spirit of No Child Left Behind," Spellings said in an interview.

By taking action now, California can collect $45 million from the federal government. The districts facing the most severe sanctions each will receive $250,000 in federal money to pay for intervention teams and to start following their suggestions.

Shortfall of qualified teachers
They will need to hire turnaround experts, new principals and coaches, and many more teachers to replace those judged to be ineffective. Where the districts will find those top-quality educators is unknown. California expects to face a shortage of as many as 100,000 qualified teachers in the next decade, even without changes to its existing school system.

"I think it's going to take leadership, commitment and expectations," she said. "It's just like with the kids: If you think you have a bunch of kids who can't get to grade level, that's what you have. If you think you have superstars, that's what you have."

With half the black and Hispanic students in the country dropping out before graduation, anything less than aggressive action to turn around the failing districts is unacceptable, Spellings said. Under some of the states' current improvement plans, it would take some districts more than 100 years to bring students' reading and math skills to grade level.

"The accountability — all the testing, all the data, all the stuff we do — are meaningless unless we have real consequences for failure," Spellings said.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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