The Bush administration is pressing California to toughen its rules for identifying failing school districts -- a change that could add 310 school systems to a watch list this year and eventually threaten the jobs of superintendents and school board members throughout the state.
The U.S. Department of Education warned that it could cut off money to the state if California did not change the way it classified struggling districts under the No Child Left Behind Act.
The federal law calls for states to place districts on a watch list if the number of students doing well on math and English standardized tests fails to increase enough two years in a row. Such districts can face sanctions if they continue to falter.
California, however, lets districts avoid the list if students from low-income households reach a set score on a separate measure of achievement.
Federal education officials believe the state policy amounts to an escape valve. The policy violates No Child Left Behind by reducing the number of districts identified as needing improvement, the officials have told the state Department of Education.
Only 14 of California's 1,000 school districts were placed on the state's watch list this year.
But hundreds of districts could be considered failures within two years if California yielded to Washington's demands, according to state education officials.
The expanded list would feature some of California's highest-performing school districts, including Santa Monica-Malibu Unified and Cupertino Union near San Jose. Even though these districts are well regarded, they could still find themselves publicly labeled as troubled if certain groups of their students -- those in special education, for example -- were not making enough progress.
At the extreme, these school systems and the others could be abolished or restructured, or their superintendents and school board members could be replaced by state-appointed trustees.
Leaders of several California school systems said it would be unfair to identify failing districts in the middle of the school year without any notice or time to respond. The district officials wondered where the money would come from to create new programs aimed at improving student test scores.
"The entire notion of how No Child Left Behind has been enacted is very narrow, very myopic and very draconian," said Santa Monica-Malibu Unified Supt. John Deasy. "It sets up a very negative dynamic for schools that have successfully shown they can raise achievement over time."
No Child Left Behind requires schools to give standardized English and math tests annually in the third through eighth grades, and to increase the numbers of students who score high enough to be labeled proficient. The law calls for states to set annual improvement goals and to identify schools and districts as in need of improvement if they fall short.
State leaders say they have neither the money nor staff to oversee hundreds of districts that could fall under new scrutiny. And they question whether widespread failure would reduce No Child Left Behind to a meaningless federal mandate.
"What kind of an accountability system do you have when most of the school districts need help?" asked California Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell. "Frankly, we don't have the resources for that."
He and other state education officials have been lobbying the federal Education Department to ease its demands but have met with little success.
The two sides spoke Wednesday, but the dispute remains unresolved. Federal officials stood firm in their demand that the state ratchet up its system of identifying struggling schools, according to those involved in the conversation.
Federal education officials would not elaborate on the negotiations or say if they had made similar demands of other states.
Education Department spokeswoman Susan Aspey would say only that "our monitoring turned up some problems with the way the state identifies its districts that need improvement. We're working with California to resolve this issue."
In the meantime, the state Education Department this week notified 310 school systems, including those in Los Angeles, Santa Ana, Pomona and San Bernardino, that they could soon join the 14 districts already on the watch list.
Los Angeles Unified officials voiced anger at the prospect of a failure label.
"We're making real progress. We have been moving the ball down the court faster than most schools in California," said Supt. Roy Romer. "People should be applauding that and assisting us, not saying, 'We're going to cut your legs off.' They ought to give us assistance to improve. This redefinition is just not helpful."
He also objected to federal rules which say that if a district is on the watch list, it cannot provide supplemental tutoring to students who attend low-performing schools.