Orwell Award Announcement SusanOhanian.Org Home

U.S., Los Angeles Schools in Civil Rights Pact

Below are two accounts of the same dreadful story. Don't these articles make you wonder what the real story is here?

By Tamara Audi

LOS ANGELES—A federal investigation into whether Los Angeles students are denied educational opportunities has prompted the school system to overhaul its approach to teaching immigrant and black students, federal and city officials said Tuesday.

The investigation was part of a probe by the U.S. Department of Education into whether 76 public school districts nationwide comply with civil rights law.

Among the findings, the department concluded that the Los Angeles Unified School District was classifying students as proficient in English though they couldn't speak the language, federal officials told The Wall Street Journal. "Those students had been languishing in limbo," said Russlynn Ali, the U.S. Department of Education assistant secretary for civil rights.

The investigation also found that black students have limited access to technology and library resources. In addition, black students "were subject to unfair discipline," Ms. Ali said, and had higher suspension and expulsion rates than other students.

Under its pact with the Education Department, Los Angeles agreed to boost college preparatory services for minority students and improve English training for students whose first language isn't English, according to a copy of the agreement.

The agreement also includes extra training for teachers, and outreach to parents whose children are learning English. In addition, it calls for a greater effort to identify black students who are eligible for the district's special programs for talented and gifted students.

"Los Angeles has a long and proud history as a magnet for immigrants," said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at a press conference. But, he said, "we still have a long way to go before we see that [minority students] are consistently getting what they need."

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and schools Superintendent John Deasy hailed the cooperative approach to creating the plan, but noted that no extra funding would be provided to implement it. Mr. Deasy said the district is engaged in a "profound struggle with funding."

Like many of America's school districts, Los Angeles has been forced to severely cut its budget, end programs and lay off teachers as state political leaders are deadlocked in a budget battle that will likely bring more cuts to education next year.

More than 200,000 of the district's 671,648 students are classified as "English language learners," meaning they need help learning English. The district has more than 60,000 black students.

Write to Tamara Audi at tammy.audi@wsj.com

LAUSD agrees to revise how English learners, blacks are taught
Officials say the accord, which settles a federal civil rights probe, could be a national model. The district is not accused of intentional bias, and deciding how to make changes will be done locally.

By Howard Blume, Los Angeles Times

The Los Angeles Unified School District has agreed to sweeping revisions in the way it teaches students learning English, as well as black youngsters, settling a federal civil rights investigation that examined whether the district was denying the students a quality education.

The settlement closes what was the Obama administration's first civil rights investigation launched by the Department of Education, and officials said Tuesday that it would serve as a model for other school districts around the country.

"What happens in L.A. really does set trends for across the nation. More and more school districts are dealing with this challenge," said Russlynn Ali, the assistant secretary of education for civil rights.

The agreement poses a potential financial problem for the school district, which has faced multimillion-dollar budget cuts and layoffs over the last few years.

The Education Department launched the probe last year, at first to determine if students who entered school speaking limited English, most of whom are Latino, were receiving adequate instruction. The nation's second-largest school system has more students learning English, about 195,000, than any other in the United States -- about 29% of the district's overall enrollment. Later, at the urging of local activists, investigators widened the probe to include black students, who make up about 10% of the district's enrollment.

Federal authorities do not accuse the district of intentional discrimination. But the settlement requires a top-to-bottom revision of the district's Master Plan for English Learners, which is already well underway. The goal is to let the district develop the details, under continuing oversight from the Office for Civil Rights, a branch of the Education Department.

Under the settlement, the district for the first time will focus on the academic progress of students judged to have adequately learned English. Many of these students subsequently flounder academically. The district will also concentrate efforts on students who have reached high school without mastering the English skills necessary to enroll in a college-preparatory curriculum and who may be at risk of dropping out.

L.A. Unified also agreed to provide students learning English and black students with more effective teachers. Improved teaching would result from "ongoing and sustained" training, among other potential efforts, Ali said.

The decision on how to improve instruction will be a local one. The district will be judged in large measure by student performance data. The ultimate sanction for not living up to the agreement would be withholding or withdrawing federal funds, Ali said.

L.A. Unified was selected for the investigation in large measure because it is an epicenter for the challenge of educating students whose native language is not English. For years, district officials insisted that L.A. Unified performed as well as or better than nearly all other school systems with this population.

Federal officials did not challenge this record. Instead, they emphasized that past efforts simply haven't succeeded as well as they must. District officials, in fact, have echoed this rhetoric. Former board member Yolie Flores consistently criticized the district's performance with English learners.

Under federal law, discrimination can exist even when it is not intentional, based on the levels of opportunity afforded students through even well-meaning policies and practices.

On Tuesday, school board President Monica Garcia made no excuses.

"It is very appropriate for the office of civil rights to come and stand side by side with our students," she said.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan traveled to Los Angeles for the announcement and praised the district's cooperation, as did L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who took part in a joint news conference.

In a meeting later with Times reporters and editors, Duncan said of L.A. Unified: "It takes courage, and you have to make yourself vulnerable."

Black students were not part of the initial inquiry, but were added to placate activists, who pointed out that African American students were, by some measures, performing at lower levels than Latino students.

For that part of the inquiry, investigators compared resources at schools that serve a substantially black enrollment with those that serve a substantially white student body. They found disparities in technology and library resources, among other things.

"We saw libraries that were woefully resourced," Ali said. "Books that weren't there that were supposed to be. Books that were there and not recorded."

Addressing this issue will be complicated. Schools that serve low-income minority students typically start with more government funding than schools serving middle-class populations. But schools in more prosperous neighborhoods rely heavily on local parent fundraising and have lower costs related to security and vandalism, among other factors.

Moreover, schools of all types are suffering from steep funding reductions. Just weeks ago, the school system laid off the specially trained part-time aides who run elementary school libraries.

Federal officials are also demanding that the district address the high proportion of black students who are suspended and expelled.

"I was aghast at how disproportionately African American students are disciplined in this district," Ali said, especially in middle schools.

Educational inequity is a familiar issue in L.A. Unified.

A 2001 initiative to help black students evolved into a measure to help black and Latino students, which eventually merged with general efforts to improve academic programs. In 2007, the district convened what was billed as a landmark conference of experts on students with limited English skills.

There has been progress, based on test scores and other parameters, but results indicate that most students don't reach academic proficiency — and English learners and black students are especially lagging, along with disabled students.

In L.A. Unified, 29% of students learning English are proficient in math. Among African American students, 38% are proficient in English.

Board member Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte said the real issue is follow-through. Many impressive-sounding plans have failed to yield sufficient progress, she said.

"The research has been done," she said.

Others noted the lack of details available on exactly how this new settlement will lead to something different.

"It's an agreement that is sweeping in scope but short on benchmarks and details on enforcement," said John Affeldt, a civil rights attorney with San Francisco-based Public Advocates, which specializes in education litigation.

"I'm very cautious, because the record is horrendous," said local activist Larry Aubry. "Political will is at the seat of this, and I hope that will is here."

— Tamara Audi & Howard Blume
Wall Street Journal & LA Times





This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of education issues vital to a democracy. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information click here. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.