THERMAL, Calif. – The federal No Child Left Behind Act (search) threatens costly penalties for schools deemed failing to meet academic standards. In response, many educators have a threat of their own: A flood of lawsuits aimed at avoiding the sanctions.
Since President Bush signed the sweeping education reforms in 2002, the law has drawn criticism from educators debating its strict performance and test requirements. The act requires all students to be proficient in reading, writing and math by 2014.
Starting this academic year, parents of children in failing schools can demand transfers to better campuses. Over the next four years, schools must offer tutoring services, administrators and teachers can be fired, states can take over districts, and federal funds can be withheld.
Coachella Valley Unified School District (search) — which includes Oasis Elementary School — could be among the nation's first to challenge the law. The school board is considering suing federal and state governments, claiming the district is being held to unreachable goals.
"Coachella is the tip of the iceberg," John Perez, president of United Teachers Los Angeles (search), said, adding that the law "doesn't take into account things it needs to."
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (search), students at more than 27,500 schools nationwide — almost 31 percent of all U.S. public schools — are failing at math and reading.
Last December, Reading School District in Pennsylvania sued over its low performance rating, arguing its Spanish-speaking students couldn't read the tests. About two-thirds of the district's 16,000 students are Hispanic; 15 percent have limited English proficiency.
But, judges ruled that testing in a student's native language is not mandatory, only required "to the extent that it is practicable to do so." The district plans to appeal.
"It's a wonderful title, No Child Left Behind. Who could ever disagree with that?" said Richard Guida, a lawyer for the Reading district. "But kids are all different and, unfortunately, this calls for a cookie-cutter approach to education that doesn't take difference into account. Some kids will be left behind."
At Oasis Elementary, more than 90 percent of the school's students are Hispanic and come from families of migrant workers surviving on less than $10,000 a year, the principal says. They are taught in English — still a foreign language for many.
Christian Rocha, 8, looks down as he recalled last year's tests.
"Estaba trabajoso," he says quietly, or "I worked really hard."
But he didn't pass.
Though there are plans to create a Spanish-language test, development won't begin until at least 2006, said Linda Lownes, a consultant for the state Education Department. In California, students must take standardized tests in English.
Kathleen Leos, of the federal Education Department, noted that states have the option of excluding test scores of students who have been enrolled in a U.S. school less than one academic year. States also can decide whether to offer a student reading and math tests for up to three years in languages other than English.
That's little comfort for district officials struggling to keep up with mounting academic expectations.
"It's unfair to hold us accountable for something students can't possibly know," said Foch Pensis, Coachella Valley district superintendent. "How do you hold these children to the same standard that you would a child in Iowa who has never been exposed to another language? It's ludicrous."
Pensis plans to seek allies in a class action lawsuit if legislators don't try to ease the burden for schools with large numbers of English-language learners. Education Department officials, however, say the No Child Left Behind Act gives considerable leeway to such districts.
Bush has touted the law in campaign stump speeches as a centerpiece of his domestic agenda, describing it as a way to hold schools accountable for children they might otherwise ignore.
The federal government allocated a total of $58.3 billion for the program in fiscal year 2005, but critics — including Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry — said that's far short of the money needed for schools.
In the meantime, at Oasis Elementary, where tests show most students know less than 15 words of English, educators are working to improve scores. They're also hiring outside consultants to better train teachers.
"We'll always have new children who don't speak the language, yet each year more and more students are required to pass," Principal Elizabeth Clipper said. "How do we ever catch up?"