L.A. Unified warned that it falls short of state standards

Times Staff Writer

The California Department of Education has alerted 99 school districts, including Los Angeles Unified, that they are in danger of being abolished, taken over or stripped of administrators and schools under their jurisdiction. But whether these and other harsh measures will come to pass is questionable at best.

Under the federal No Child Left Behind law, state officials have not adopted severe punishments against school districts, and they appear reluctant now. But their authority to do so became sweeping this fall in the wake of the most recent results on state standardized tests.

For the first time, school districts that continue to fall short of academic benchmarks are exposed to severe measures, and federal law requires the state in the next few months to take some action.


Los Angeles school Supt. David L. Brewer armed himself with the state’s written notification recently to defend himself against parents who were upset over his failure to consult with them before announcing his latest reform plan. He said the state’s letter explained the urgency behind his actions.

“They can remove all of us,” Brewer said referring to himself, his staff and the elected school board. And they could withhold funding: “I don’t want them to mess with my money.”

Other districts that were informed that they face sanctions for failing to improve test scores for all students include Berkeley Unified, Montebello Unified, Pomona Unified, Santa Ana Unified, Antelope Valley Joint Union, Centinela Valley Union, Santa Barbara Elementary and Lennox Elementary.

Among other actions, the state board also could authorize student transfers outside a district or break up a large school system, including L.A. Unified.

The state board is scheduled to deliberate on what to do with L.A. Unified at its January meeting. And under federal law, it must adopt one or more specific options, all of which sound potentially extreme, and not only to officials in Los Angeles.

“A number of those sanctions could be very detrimental,” said Brett Neal, director of school improvement for Antelope Valley. “The first rule should be do no harm.”


Antelope Valley met 32 of 34 mandated goals, missing the mark on the academic proficiency of its disabled students as well as their participation rate on tests. As a result, the district could not shed the unwanted label of being in so-called program improvement status.

“When you say a district is in program improvement, you have all kinds of ideas about what’s not working,” Neal said. “On the contrary, our district has grown academically” -- a message the district is trying to get out.

Brewer used the ostensibly disastrous news in a novel way: to get the upper hand with parent representatives at a late October meeting.

But down the line, should he -- and other superintendents -- be worried?

“We’re getting a lot of calls,” said Wendy Harris, assistant superintendent of the Department of Education. “There’s a lot of angst out there. . . . Some of these options are very draconian and maybe not even doable under state law. I don’t know how you abolish a district.

“We’re trying to find a way to meet federal law that works within the California context and doesn’t unravel the positive growth that districts have made,” she said.

The president of the state Board of Education referred to the sanction alternatives as “the seven deadly cures.” Kenneth Noonan, a former Oceanside Unified superintendent, also said he wants to get “input from each of the 99 districts to tell us what it is you need.”


On measures used to calculate the federal standard of “adequate yearly progress,” L.A. Unified passed muster in 43 of 46 categories.

L.A. Unified, the nation’s second-largest district, fell short on its graduation rate and in two English language arts categories: English learners and disabled students.

State officials insist they don’t have nearly the resources to step in and take control. In the past, the state has appointed its own administrators to run only school systems facing imminent bankruptcy. An exception was Compton Unified, where the state took charge for eight years through legislation characterizing the district as both educationally and financially bankrupt.

Critics have faulted the state’s accountability system from both directions: Some say there are no meaningful sanctions; others say the state labels schools as failures without giving them sufficient means to improve.

Actions against low-performing school districts are “the part of No Child Left Behind that almost no one is paying attention to,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, based in Washington, D.C., which funds education research and supports charter schools.

“It is close to being a joke,” he added, addressing a recent conference of educators. “I don’t know if there is the political will or policy leverage” to use the sanctions.


The ultimate federal sanction under the No Child Left Behind law is withholding money from a state or school district, a rare tactic. The U.S. Department of Education could cite only one example: The department once penalized Texas for being late in delivering test results for schools.

Despite the lack of federal enforcement, “states are beginning to feel a little overwhelmed” at the high number of perpetually low-achieving schools and school districts, said Raymond Simon, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Education.

Bush administration officials say they are open to some revisions in No Child Left Behind. An amended law, for example, could make distinctions between schools and districts that fell just short of testing targets “for relatively minor infractions” and those “that continually miss year after year,” Simon said.

In Los Angeles, Brewer and his team still are trying to put together a reform plan for low-performing schools before the January state board meeting. They don’t want L.A. Unified to become the first California district to receive stiff sanctions.

Over the last several weeks, he’s collected input not only from parents but also from union and civic leaders. He plans to present his ideas to the L.A. school board next month.