School district fights state over No Child Left Behind sanctions
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
December 17, 2003

By Eleanor Chute, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

A Pennsylvania school district apparently has become the first district in the nation to sue a state education department over No Child Left Behind requirements.

Reading School District's goal in suing the Pennsylvania Department of Education over the federal education law is to protect its schools from what the district believes are unfair sanctions.

But the suit filed last week in Commonwealth Court may have wider implications because it's believed to be the first such action by a local district.

"It's certainly going to be closely watched by all observers," said Tom Hutton, staff attorney for the National School Boards Association.

Tim Allwein, assistant executive director for governmental and member relations of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, said, "I think if Reading is successful, I think you'll see some more cases pop up."

"I certainly think there's a lot of frustration out there," Allwein added.

Like many other school districts, Reading filed an appeal after the state singled out 13 of its 19 elementary, middle and high schools for not meeting standards the state set in the act.

Seven of Reading's schools were placed on a "warning" list, and six were placed on the more serious "school improvement" list, which requires the district to offer transfers to better-performing schools.

If the schools don't get off the list, more sanctions -- including a district takeover -- are possible.

The state has granted some appeals to Pennsylvania schools, largely because of data errors. A few appeals have yet to be finalized.

But while most who lost their appeals gave up, Reading decided to take its case to Commonwealth Court.

Their petition states that the district, which has 16,000 students, has a weak tax base and is operating at a deficit.

The lawsuit argues three major points:

The state didn't offer the required tests in Spanish, which meant the Reading students who speak little English were judged on the basis of math and reading tests given in English.

Eleven percent of the district's students have limited English proficiency; 64 percent of the district is Hispanic. The state isn't expected to have tests written in Spanish until 2005.

The district alleges the state hasn't provided adequate technical and financial assistance for it to comply with the act, even though the federal law states that the mandates are not supposed to be unfunded.

The state has conducted regional seminars to tell districts how to make school improvement plans. But funding for some other help, such as tutoring, has been held up in the state budget debate, said department spokesman Brian Christopher.

The district is questioning how the state determines "subgroups" -- such as those who are low-income or have limited English skills. Pennsylvania requires schools to have at least 40 students in a subgroup for it to count. Reading officials argue that the state has failed to justify that number.

"It's already starting to cost us money," said Reading solicitor Rick Guida, noting that the district is busing some students who have requested transfers to other schools.

While Guida said that he "had no desire -- nor does this law firm -- to be at the center of any type of national movement," others supported the action.

Ira Weiss, special counsel for Pittsburgh Public Schools, said the district will monitor the Reading case.

"I applaud Reading," said Weiss. "I think they are confronting the reality of this program."

Still, Pittsburgh will abide by the law, Weiss said, and implement it to the best of its ability.

Penn Hills Superintendent Samuel DePaul said the district appealed the placement of Penn Hebron Elementary School on the state's school improvement list, but now it is concentrating on working to get off the list.

"We're very comfortable with the programming that we've put in place, what we're doing here to address the issues," he said.

Reading Superintendent Melissa Jamula said she "absolutely" believes in the act's goals of accountability and ensuring there are highly qualified teachers and a safe environment.

But, she said, "There are things contained in the law that just aren't right and are clearly unfair and clearly inconsistent. We felt an obligation to our students and our schools to file the petition on their behalf."

Post-Gazette education writer Eleanor Chute can be reached at or 412-263-1955.