The federal Department of Education's civil rights arm will launch a major investigation into whether Los Angeles schools have denied educational opportunities to students learning English, officials are expected to announce today.
The investigation into whether the Los Angeles Unified School District is honoring the civil rights of English language learners will be the first of many planned nationwide by the newly energized federal Office for Civil Rights.
The review will focus on schools in the west San Fernando Valley and southeast Los Angeles.
The office notified LAUSD officials and local congressmen this week about the probe, and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is expected to divulge details at a news conference and town hall meeting in Los Angeles today.
"We are here to announce a compliance review we are doing at Los Angeles Unified involving English Language learners," said Justin Hamilton, a spokesman for Duncan.
Earlier this week Duncan said his agency's civil rights office has not worked hard enough over the past 10years to combat discrimination on gender, race and disability.
"We are going to reinvigorate civil rights enforcement," he told reporters over the weekend.
While 38 school districts across the nation will undergo civil rights compliance reviews, LAUSD has been chosen as the first to be publicly announced. The nation's second-largest school district houses the largest population of English-language learning students.
LAUSD Superintendent Ramon C. Cortines and district officials were notified last month about the investigation and learned Monday it would begin this week.
"We welcome the U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights' compliance review and we expect to cooperate fully during this time," Cortines said.
"If it is determined that this district needs to do better to ensure that all LAUSD students receive an equal opportunity to a quality education, we will work hard to make those improvements.
Some 220,000 Los Angeles students, or nearly a third of LAUSD's population, are English learners.
In a letter to Cortines, Russlynn Ali, the Education assistant secretary for civil rights, said investigators from the San Francisco civil rights office will assess whether English-learning students have been subject to discrimination "on the basis of national origin."
The investigation will focus on whether the district provides students struggling with English, especially in high school, with equal access to courses and if they're given effective learning tools.
The federal analysts will also examine how English-learning students are identified; what programs allow them to learn fluent English; how students get extra help in math and science; whether students are properly evaluated; whether they have qualified teachers; and if parents have been included in the process.
The Office for Civil Rights said it will concentrate on LAUSD District 1 in the West Valley and District 6 in southeast Los Angeles. Federal officials did not give a reason for selecting these districts, or why Los Angeles would be the first district to be reviewed.
In general, such reviews are based on information given by parents, advocacy and community groups, news and statistics.
Local community groups applauded the federal probe, saying it was "long overdue."
"We have some schools who do well with English-learner students, but for the most part this district has failed these students," said Veronica Melvin, executive director for Alliance for Better Communities, a local nonprofit.
Melvin stressed that working to improve access to education services for these students was key not only to the success of individual students but to the greater Los Angeles community.
"These students make up a third of the population of this district and thereby a third of the future workforce of this city," Melvin said.
"The ability to educate them well is essential to ensuring that this city remains competitive in the global economy."
It is likely that the review was prompted by the low academic performance of students learning English in LAUSD.
"We have kids in this district that come to us as kindergartners not knowing English and five years later they are still considered English-learners," said LAUSD board member Yolie Flores, who represents southeast Los Angeles.
"Something is just not right," she added.
Flores cited cases of students who graduate out of remedial English courses, but often fail regular education classes. She said that was usually caused by years of lacking access to core courses, and it often leaves kids unmotivated about school and causes them to drop out.
"There has been a lot of talk in this district but not enough walk," Flores said.
Still, district officials say they are in good shape to pass the compliance review.
"I am pretty confident that we are going to land on our feet," said LAUSD Chief Academic Officer Judy Elliott.
"There has been a lot of good work happening at this district."
Elliott said that despite dismal proficiency rates, the progress of English-language learners should be measured by students' individual test scores. She also said LAUSD's rate of graduating students out of remedial English courses is better than the state's. About 14 percent of students learning English were moved out of the English-learner category last year compared to 10 percent statewide, Elliott said.
If LAUSD is found to be out of compliance with civil rights laws, penalties could include a withholding of federal funds, referrals to the Justice Department and possible court injunctions.
The compliance review comes as the district struggles to close a $640-million budget gap.
U.S. Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon, R-Santa Clarita, who sits on the House Education and Labor Committee, said he looks forward to learning more about any cooperation agreement between the Office for Civil Rights and the LAUSD.
"It's important that school districts in California and across the country comply with the nondiscrimination statutes passed by Congress, which ensure that all students have access to a high quality education," he said in a statement.