Critics Give the Failing Schools Report an "F" in Fairness. (Notebook: Educations Information from Schools, Business, Research and Professional Organizations)

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Ready or not, here it comes. Most districts feel anything but ready for the new federal mandate that gives students in "failing schools" a transfer option. "The timeline is very, very short," says Jim Murphy, executive director of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators.

Released in July, the list includes schools that failed to meet state-defined standards at least two years in a row. While Congress increased school aid funding from $18.6 to $22.1 billion to help with associated costs, it's not likely enough. The transfers cause other issues, too, such as how crowded schools can fit more students. "It sounds good on paper, but there [are] a number of logistical and academic issues that have to be worked out," says Brett McFadden, legislative advocate for the Association of California School Administrators.

The U.S. Department of Education concedes that state comparisons are not valid because states define school progress differently. However, states with higher standards and established accountability systems are questioning the validity of the list itself.

"Just because somebody produces a list, doesn't mean the list is accurate. None of our schools are failing schools. It's as simple as that," says Carl Barbed, assistant superintendent at Greenville (Mich.) Public School District, where all four elementary schools made the list. Michigan's accountability system was meant to help schools with areas that need attention, not identify failing schools, he says. Schools that don't improve in even one of four content areas were labeled as failing on the federal list.

Data from Kentucky has also been used out of context, educators say. Kentucky Department of Education spokeswoman Lisa Gross says, "We're not punitive, like the federal system is. We provide assistance." But she's most upset that the list is based on 1998-2000 data. The state got permission to issue a new list in mid-September with the new 2002 data--but Gross doesn't know if the transfer option will still have to be implemented now. "The responses I've seen ... raise more questions," she says.

Some states are trying to help with legislation of their own. In Illinois, for example, districts are exempt from having to transfer students into crowded schools, and transfers that disrupt court-issued desegregation orders are also exempt.

Meanwhile, districts everywhere are notifying parents of their options, plus explaining why they feel certain schools should not be on the list. Leestown Middle School in Fayette County, Ky. …