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State Stands with San Antonio Schools Against Feds

No Child Left Behind may be one of the most sweeping education reform laws in history, but federal education officials take note: Texans do things their own way.

The Texas Education Agency has sided with all but 14 of the more than 100 San Antonio-area schools that challenged the federal government's determination that they failed to make adequate yearly progress in 2004 as defined by No Child Left Behind, President Bush's extensive public school reform overhaul.

Overall, 1,516 Texas schools failed to make adequate yearly progress last year. The Texas Education Agency sided with 1,316 of the schools and granted appeals, which were released Friday, effectively reversing the federal designation.

Schools that fail the federal standards the first time are put on notice. Schools that fail two years in a row must allow students to transfer to a different school and foot the bill for transportation.

Krueger Middle School in North East, Rayburn Middle School in Northside, Leal Middle and McCollum High School in Harlandale, and several others in San Antonio-area districts are paying for transportation for students who have transferred.

Although those schools have won their appeals, they must continue to provide transportation through the end of the school year.

"I'm thrilled we won the appeal. None of our schools are classified as needing improvement," Northside Superintendent John Folks said.

All 15 Northside schools that initially were on the list won their appeals. The district used the same argument on behalf of all its schools, that special-education students shouldn't have to meet the same standards as kids without special needs a subject that has ignited debate among education officials around the country.

"What this tells me is that the TEA agrees with local school districts," Folks said. "It still doesn't remove the problem that needs to be addressed at the federal level of how schools should be testing special-education students. They need to address that in Washington."

Richard Middleton, North East School District superintendent, said the federal government's formula for evaluating schools is "fundamentally unfair" because learning-disabled students must be tested on grade level, despite disabilities.

Federal results were delayed for months while Texas education officials and the U.S. Education Department tried to reach an agreement over how to count the scores of special-education students.

Federal officials say only 1 percent of students is exempt from testing because they're in special education. All other students must test on grade level or be counted as failures.

When students were tested last spring, state officials weren't aware of that rule, and special-education students were given an alternative test that measures their growth from year to year. All but 1 percent of their scores counted as failures, which resulted in more than 1,500 Texas schools initially failing federal standards. In Texas, approximately 12 percent of students are in special education.

Texas Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley has joined other officials across the country in asking for a moratorium on the 1 percent cap, said DeEtta Culbertson, a TEA spokeswoman.

Culbertson said local schools were following state law and shouldn't be penalized for it.

"We reviewed the appeals based on appropriate testing of students under state policy at that time," she said.

That state policy which backs up the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act includes testing a child at a level deemed appropriate by a committee made up of a child's teachers, parents and principals.

Culbertson said schools are expected to continue following state law and the federal IDEA law, despite its perceived conflict with No Child Left Behind.

Earlier this week, a bipartisan panel of lawmakers from a variety of states wrapped up a study of No Child Left Behind and found it deeply flawed. Among other findings, the lawmakers said the law's requirements for education of special-needs students conflicts with provisions of the Individuals with Disabilities Act.

Middleton hopes new U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, a former Texas education lobbyist, will listen to school leaders' concerns.

"There are good aspects of this accountability system, but we dwell too much on sanctions," he said. "Many states are challenging No Child Left Behind altogether. We don't want a system that is punitive to children who can't help where they are."


— Jenny LaCoste-Caputo
San Antonio Express-News


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