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Underperforming schools face sanctions

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has 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 five years.

Among those was Planada Elementary School District in Merced County.

Schwarzenegger has vowed to make California the first state in the nation to embrace the penalty aspect of the law.

"Students who have persistently lagged behind have suffered too long, and they need our help right now," Schwarzenegger said in a statement.

Planada was the only other area school targeted for moderate sanctions. The Modesto City High School District faces moderate sanctions, which would allow district officials to choose a team of education experts to assess their curriculum, testing, teacher quality and other issues.

By intervening, the state can receive up to $45 million in federal money to help turn the districts around, the governor's office said.

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.

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. They will then recommend action to the state Board of Education, which must approve Schwarzenegger's plan before it can take effect.

Modesto City Elementary, Merced City Elementary and Atwater Elementary school districts face only light assistance, which means they can 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 five 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.

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.