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 Published Saturday May 10, 2008
CA: School districts start to face sanctions under landmark law
By JULIET WILLIAMS Associated Press Writer
The Associated Press 

THERMAL, Calif. (AP) – At Las Palmitas Elementary School, nestled between rundown homes and fields of grapes, peppers and dates in Southern California, 99 percent of students live in poverty and fewer than 20 percent speak English fluently.

Las Palmitas and other schools in the Coachella Valley Unified School District are just the type policy makers had in mind when Congress passed the federal No Child Left Behind Act in 2001 to shed light on the disparities facing poor and minority children.

Nineteen of the district’s 21 schools – including Las Palmitas – have not met the federal law’s performance benchmarks for four years. Now the entire district faces sanctions for the first time.

“We have hardworking, dedicated, trained teachers like everybody else. They’ve got to teach a language, they’ve got to teach the content, and they’ve got to counter poverty,” said Foch “Tut” Pensis, the district’s superintendent. “We are the poster child for NCLB.”

California has 97 school districts that failed to meet their goals under the law for four years, more than twice as many failing districts as any other state so far. Kentucky has the next highest number facing sanctions, with 47.

Nationwide, 411 school districts in 27 states now face intervention.

Over the next few years, hundreds more districts are destined to enter the next phase that California already has begun. The state has ordered districts to undergo everything from reporting how they are implementing the federal law to having a team of specialists assess every aspect of their operations. In the most extreme cases, California districts could be subject to a state takeover.

How California and the other states will turn around those struggling districts is unclear.

No one, on a large scale, has figured out how to solve the achievement gap,” Pensis said. “Everybody’s looking for that answer.”

If they need better teachers and administrators, it’s not apparent where they will come from. Some federal money is available, but it’s unlikely it will be enough to cover all the failing districts.

Many states already are losing revenue due to the sliding economy. California’s budget deficit for the fiscal year that begins this summer is projected to be anywhere from $15 billion to $20 billion.

No Child Left Behind sought to shine a light on inequality in the nation’s education system, where schools have been accused of setting lower expectations for poor and minority children. Nationwide, black and Hispanic students consistently lag behind their white and Asian peers in performance, a chasm referred to as the achievement gap.

The law also set tough goals for districts to demonstrate steady improvement.

U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings says California is taking the right steps. It is the first state to take widespread action against all its districts that have failed to meet the achievement target set by No Child Left Behind.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the state’s elected Superintendent of Public Instruction, Jack O’Connell, proposed the sliding scale of punishment for the 97 districts – which are responsible for educating nearly a third of California’s 6.3 million students.

Their approach reserves severe measures, such as replacing administrators or a takeover by the state, for districts that have shown the least improvement.

“He is the first governor to kind of embrace this law, to take it on himself, to be acting for it, and in keeping completely with the spirit of No Child Left Behind,” Spellings said in an interview.

By taking action now, California can collect $45 million from the federal government. The districts facing the most severe sanctions each will receive $250,000 in federal money to pay for intervention teams and to start following their suggestions.

They will need to hire turnaround experts, new principals and coaches, and many more teachers to replace those judged to be ineffective. Where the districts will find those top-quality educators is unknown. California expects to face a shortage of as many as 100,000 qualified teachers in the next decade, even without changes to its existing school system.

“I think it’s going to take leadership, commitment and expectations,” she said. “It’s just like with the kids: If you think you have a bunch of kids who can’t get to grade level, that’s what you have. If you think you have superstars, that’s what you have.”

With half the black and Hispanic students in the country dropping out before graduation, anything less than aggressive action to turn around the failing districts is unacceptable, Spellings said. Under some of the states’ current improvement plans, it would take some districts more than 100 years to bring students’ reading and math skills to grade level.

“The accountability – all the testing, all the data, all the stuff we do – are meaningless unless we have real consequences for failure,” Spellings said.

(This version CORRECTS that state has already called on districts to fulfill various requirements).)


Voter rolls show UNL City Campus faculty leans left

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BY SAM ERB AND SAMANTHA HENG / For the Lincoln Journal Star

Sunday, Mar 23, 2008 – 12:24:41 am CDT

Josh Withrow will always remember the Nov. 2, 2004, election.

The next day, Robert Aguirre burst into a University of Nebraska-Lincoln classroom, looked at the students and offered this pronouncement: Republicans are going to destroy the country, and they should all be quarantined and removed from society.

Aguirre was the teacher.

Michael Wagner, UNL professor of political science, says he is a Democrat but doesn’t express his views in the classroom. He said doesn’t want to make any class members feel awkward.
Redwire report

University of Nebraska-Lincoln students who write for Redwire, a publication produced by the College of Journalism and Mass Communications, checked over voter registration records of UNL faculty on the Nebraska Secretary of State’s Web site to do this report.

Redwire is available on the UNL campus. For more information, contact Redwire editors at

“There was stunned silence that seemed to go on for a long time, until a student spoke up and asked him if he thought he was stepping over his boundaries,” said Withrow, a conservative from a Virginia military family.

“I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.”

Withrow is one of many conservative students from Nebraska, where Republicans outnumber Democrats 3 to 2.

On campus, a much different dynamic emerges: 11 political science professors are registered Democrats, and zero are registered Republicans. In sociology: 31 Democrats, one Republican. In history: 25 Democrats, four Republicans.

Overall, Democrats outnumber Republicans 3 to 1, making City Campus a deep blue island in a vast, statewide sea of red.

“Liberal people tend to be more attracted to the development of the mind, whereas more conservative (people) may be attracted to business,” said John Hibbing, one of those 11 Democrats in the Political Science Department.

Whatever the reason, the disproportionate number of Democrats among faculty on the main campus raises a number of questions. Among them:

* Where’s the line between academic freedom and political indoctrination?

* Does the largely liberal makeup of the faculty stifle the voices of more conservative students?

* Is this an age-old trend that is intensifying or simply becoming accepted as part of the academic landscape of public universities?

Academic freedom vs. indoctrination

UNL has a strong open speech policy. It allows faculty members to speak freely about their curriculum based on the subject taught, said Juan Franco, vice chancellor for student affairs.

“Universities are places where issues need to be discussed, but I would be disappointed if (a political discussion) was in an accounting class,” Franco said.

What UNL does not have is a general policy on political discussions in the classroom, he said. And individual colleges don’t have policies regarding political biases in the classroom.

The deans of the colleges of Journalism and Mass Communications, Education and Human Sciences and Arts and Sciences all echoed the same common theme: Faculty views on political issues will naturally come out in the classroom, but faculty members need to stimulate discussion by showing both sides.

Although educators “have a certain responsibility to not shove ideas down kids’ throats, public campuses have a responsibility to bring the political process to classrooms,” said Education and Human Sciences Dean Marjorie Kostelnik.

Although there is no official policy, faculty members are expected to discuss politics without forcing their own beliefs upon students, Kostelnik said.

But students say they have seen faculty members breach this unwritten code.

Dirk Chatelain, a 2004 UNL graduate, said he encountered a liberal bias in a civil liberties class during his last semester of college.

“I was not an angry partisan; he didn’t push my buttons,” Chatelain said. “I agreed with him on 90 percent of the court cases, but that wasn’t the point. He wasn’t addressing the logic of the opposing position.”

During the class, Chatelain felt that each case offered the opportunity to spark debate that was “stifled” by the political science professor.

“He would purposely or inadvertently stifle the conservative argument,” Chatelain said. “A civil liberties classroom should spark debate — there are 40 different people who bring different views — and you can learn more during student debates than from just listening to the professor.”

The deans say professors should guide discussion and debate, not force their biases on students.

“A biased point of view is not what education is about — that’s propaganda,” said Will Norton, dean of the College of Journalism and Mass Communications.

Students get offended

UNL Political Science Professor Michael Wagner said students tend to be more easily offended these days.

When President Bush enjoyed more support a few years ago, Wagner noted, praising him would have repelled students who disliked the president. Today, conservative students might take offense if an instructor points out how much Bush’s approval ratings have declined.

Because of this “selective perception,” Wagner doesn’t share his political views with his students.

“I don’t want half the class to turn off right away,” he said.

That’s why his office walls are covered in posters and campaign ads of famous Democrats as well as Republicans.

Mike Doty, a sophomore political science and pre-law major, appreciated that Wagner didn’t indoctrinate his students in class last fall.

“I like it better when a professor keeps you guessing,” he said. “College is a time that students should face views opposite of their own. It should get them to understand why they support what they support.”

Not all professors take Wagner’s approach.

Aguirre, who left UNL after the spring 2005 semester, did not hide his political views, Withrow said.

After fully realizing how anti-Republican the writing rhetoric lecturer was, Withrow said he tried to “fly under the radar.”

It worked until Aguirre noticed a pro-Bush sticker on Withrow’s backpack. From then on, Withrow said, the lecturer referred to him as “the Republican.”

“The next class (Aguirre) showed up with a stack of papers about (2004 Democratic presidential nominee John) Kerry at least an-inch-and-a-half thick,” Withrow said. “And one by one started slamming them down on my desk, saying why I was wrong.

“He didn’t do it to anybody else in the class. Just me.”

Redwire was unable to find or reach Aguirre.

Seth McDonald, a registered independent, was in the same class as Withrow. He said Aguirre showed videos detailing the conservative bias of FOX News and — in lieu of traditional lectures — anti-Iraq war propaganda.

“In a way (the experience) was good because now I keep an eye out for biases,” said McDonald, a 22-year-old marketing major. “But in a way it shaped my life … now I tend to lean towards the liberal side.”

Said Withrow, a senior history and classics major: “Most of the faculty are very liberal, but they are willing to debate it, whereas students, both Democratic and Republican, are less likely to debate it reasonably.”

A liberal academia

So does any one thing explain why some public universities tend to have a more Democratic, liberal tilt — at least among faculty?

Solon Simmons, an assistant professor of conflict sociology at George Mason University, recently conducted a study published in The Chronicle of Higher Education. After carefully examining responses from 1,417 professors at more than 900 institutions, Simmons concluded about 90 percent referred to themselves as either liberal or moderate.

“It boils down to money and an interest in new knowledge,” said Simmons.

Conservatives with the talent and opportunity to teach, he said, are more likely to take better-paying, non-university jobs. Wanting to preserve old ways of thinking as opposed to creating new knowledge, which is what universities do, is also a common conservative point of view, he said.

UNL Political Science Professor John Gruhl isn’t surprised, and said it isn’t a phenomenon specific to UNL.

Applicants for faculty positions are themselves products of higher education, which tends to be more liberal. So it isn’t a conspiracy to have more liberals than conservatives, Gruhl said.

The University of Nebraska system is governed by eight regents, seven of whom are Republican.

The Democrat, Chairman Chuck Hassebrook, said university professors often are Democrats, but the private sector is often more dominated by Republicans.

“It’s good to get young people exposed to all kinds of ideas,” he said. “It gives them a chance to hear different sides of the issue so they can make a decision.”

ASUN President and Student Regent David Solheim discounts the notion that students can be inoculated with a liberal bias simply because City Campus has three liberal faculty for every conservative.

Yes, it’s liberal.

“But there are a lot of places more liberal than Lincoln, Nebraska.”

Sam Erb is a senior news-editorial and broadcast major in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Journalism and Mass Communications. Samantha Heng is a senior news-editorial major

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