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Originally published August 13, 2014 at 8:15 PM | Page modified August 13, 2014 at 10:26 PM

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Failing-school letters to go out, but not without districts’ retort

Most Washington school districts will be sending out letters soon telling families their children attend failing schools, but 28 area districts are including another letter challenging that label.

Seattle Times education reporter

School districts that signed the protest letter

Auburn, Bellevue, Bethel, Clover Park, Eatonville, Enumclaw, Federal Way, Fife, Franklin Pierce, Highline, Issaquah, Kent, Lake Washington, Northshore, Orting, Peninsula, Puyallup, Renton, Riverview, Shoreline, Snoqualmie Valley, Steilacoom, Sumner, Tacoma, Tahoma, Tukwila, Vashon Island, White River.

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Because most Washington school districts don’t have 100 percent of their students passing state math and reading tests, the federal No Child Left Behind law says the districts must send letters to families explaining why.

But the districts don’t have to like it, and 28 school superintendents have jointly written a second letter they will send along with the first, explaining why they think their schools are doing much better than the No Child letters make it seem.

“Some of our state’s and districts’ most successful and highly recognized schools are now being labeled ‘failing’ by an antiquated law that most educators and elected officials — as well as the U.S. Department of Education — acknowledge isn’t working,” the cover letter states. The letter is signed by John Welch, superintendent of the Puget Sound Educational Service District, which represents the 28 districts.

The signees include many of the larger school districts in King and Pierce counties, such as Bellevue, Federal Way, Issaquah, Kent, Lake Washington, Northshore, Renton and Tacoma.

They announced the protest letter at an event Wednesday.

Seattle Public Schools did not sign it, but supports the letter’s sentiments, a spokeswoman said.

Critics say the federal education lawknown as No Child Left Behind is long overdue for a rewrite in Congress, where Republicans and Democrats agree it’s not working but disagree on how to fix it.

The 2001 law required all states to create their own standards for reading and math and work toward ensuring every student reaches them, including students with disabilities and those who don’t speak English as their first language. The deadline, set in 2001, was 2014.

Recognizing that few if any districts would hit that target, the Obama administration granted most states a waiver from some of the law’s requirements in exchange for adopting certain reforms, including the use of student test scores in teacher evaluations, a move some think should be challenged in federal court.

In April, Washington became the first state in the country to lose its waiver because it does not mandate districts to use student scores on state tests as part of judging how well teachers do their jobs. That meant the letters, which Washington schools haven’t had to send for a few years, now must go to parents.

The federal government has said that it’s important to notify parents about the reasons a school is judged subpar, what it’s doing to improve and how parents can get involved. Some schools will be required to notify parents if their children are eligible for outside tutoring.

Seattle Public Schools did not sign because it is seeking reinstatement of the waiver for its own schools, arguing that its unique teacher-evaluation system, negotiated with the teachers union, meets the federal requirements.

“We are still waiting to hear about our waiver request and didn’t think it was appropriate for us to sign on with the other districts at this point,” said district spokeswoman Lesley Rogers. “We certainly support the sentiments in the letter.”

The letters must be sent 14 days before school starts, which means Kent will be sending them out Thursday and including the joint cover letter.

“While we are required to do this, our school district and our schools are not failing,” said Kent Superintendent Edward Lee Vargas. “What we really need is for Congress to act to reauthorize this bill. It’s out of date, and imposing this requirement is really unfair to the community and the hard work of our teachers and parents and administrators.”

John Higgins: 206-464-3145 or On Twitter @jhigginsST

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