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U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights targets L.A. Unified for investigation

March 9, 2010 | 12:37 pm

LAUSD Superintendent Ramon Cortines The federal government has targeted the Los Angeles Unified School District for its first major investigation under a reinvigorated Office for Civil Rights, The Times has learned.

The probe will focus on services to students learning English, who make up a third of the enrollment in the nation’s second-largest school system.

Federal analysts will review how English learners are identified and when they are judged fluent enough to handle regular course work. They’ll examine whether English learners have qualified, appropriately trained teachers. And they’ll look at how teachers make math and science understandable for students with limited-English skills — and how a school provides extra help for those struggling the most. Reviewers also will see if the district communicates effectively with parents in a language they understand.

The inquiry was prompted primarily by the low academic achievement of English learners; about 3 in 100 are proficient in math and English at the high school level, federal officials said. Focusing on L.A. Unified also makes sense because it has so many English learners, they said.

The Office for Civil Rights, an arm of the U.S. Department of Education, is charged with enforcing laws that protect students from discrimination on the basis of sex, race, national origin and disability status.

“This is about helping kids receive a good education, the education they deserve,” said Russlynn Ali, the department’s assistant secretary for civil rights. “This is about raising the bar and closing the achievement gap.”

L.A. schools Supt. Ramon C. Cortines said he welcomed the probe as an outside evaluation that would help the district identify and expand successful programs.

“And if there are egregious areas of misconduct by the district I will move on it immediately,” said Cortines, who became superintendent 15 months ago.

He added that district probably ranks “above average” compared to other school systems in programs for English learners. But that’s not nearly good enough, he added.

“I don’t think we have done well in making sure our young people continue to develop both written and oral language,” he said.

Both the district and the federal agency represented the review as friendly, but enforcement options are available, including the withholding of federal funds, referrals to the Justice Department and pursuing court injunctions. More likely, the department will provide technical assistance.

The compliance review arrives at a difficult time for L.A. Unified, which is trying to close a $640-million budget gap and is struggling to make do with fewer services and employees.

The ultimate goal of federal officials is to exert pressure on L.A. Unified and other school districts to close the achievement gap that separates white, Asian and higher-income students from low-income, black and Latino students. The federal government has the authority to examine practices that harm groups of students, even in the absence of intentional discrimination.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan launched the ramped-up enforcement effort Monday at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. — the site where law enforcement officers beat and drove back 600 civil rights marchers on March 7, 1965. The Rev. Martin Luther King later led a successful and larger march to the state Capitol across the same bridge.

At Monday’s event, officials said that 38 school districts would be subject to “compliance reviews,” but they named no districts at that time.

Under the Obama administration, Duncan has used the promise of vitally needed federal dollars to leverage favored reforms, such as linking teacher evaluations to student achievement and increasing the number of charter schools, which are independently managed, mostly nonunion and free from some restrictions that govern traditional schools.

English learners are just one focus of what officials described as a resurgent Office for Civil Rights. In other districts, the division also will look at equal access to college-prep classes, equal opportunity for African American students, sexual harassment, violence, and services to the disabled.

-- Howard Blume

Photo: LAUSD Superintendent Ramon Cortines. Credit: Reed Saxon / Associated Press

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