IS CIVIL RIGHTS PROBE UNFAIR TO BLACK STUDENTS?
A major investigation of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) by the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Civil Rights (OCR) was scheduled to begin this week. OCR's compliance review is to determine whether widespread low achievement in LAUSD violates students' legal and constitutional rights; the probe focuses on English Language Learners (ELL).Â
Latinos constitute over 70% of the district's student population and a third are ELL. Low achievement is the basis of the investigation here and throughout the nation. However, Black students, LAUSD's lowest achievers, are not the focus of the compliance review, reportedly because of the district's size and large number of ELL.
Since the compliance review of LAUSD was prompted by low achievement, many question why Black students are not top priority; why aren't they also the focus of OCR's investigation? Since low achievement is the reason for the probe, it is not only fair, but essential, that Black students be targeted too. The concern is not that Latino students are targeted, they should be. But they are, in effect, being singled out at the expense of Black students. The inevitable conclusion is that targeting ELL only was a political not educational decision.
OCR's compliance review of LAUSD case could have serious ramifications. It could result in an already fragile de facto dÅ½tente between Blacks and Latinos, within and outside of LAUSD, worsening. (Also, in a very real way, Black students' language is just as misunderstood and maligned as those who speak a foreign language. Clearly, this did not figure significantly in OCR's decision to focus on ELL students exclusively.)
Educational outcomes and racial and ethnic relations in LAUSD could be negatively affected by OCR's decision. Once again, politics has trumped substantive issues and Black and Latino children are the ones who will suffer the consequences. The system discriminates against both groups--each has a disproportionate number of low achievers and what applies for one often applies to the other.
Russlynn Ali, Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights with the U.S. Department of Education, is the point person for the compliance review in Los Angeles. She recognizes and has acknowledged that Black students suffer some of the same systemic inequities as Latino students and cited similarities in meetings with various groups. Thus far, however, low achieving Black students in LAUSD have yet to be mentioned in the media.
Clearly, the train was moving swiftly before it got to Los Angeles; the decision to target ELL was a done deal. Blacks and similarly concerned others must publicly insist that Black students be added to this compliance review, not as has been suggested, as a separate class action complaint, but as a principal in OCR's compliance review. This would be commensurate with their status as LAUSD's lowest achievers and consistent with OCR's chief criterion for its investigation.
Even if Assistant Secretary Ali were receptive to adding Black students along with ELL as top priority, most likely she could hardly do anything more than make such a recommendation to the Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Last week, Duncan said his department has a legal and moral obligation to investigate low achieving schools. How then can Black students not be accorded top priority focus? As does Ali, Duncan emphasizes LAUSD's compliance review is broader than past investigations and will include the impact school district policies and practices have on low student achievement and suggest remedies as well as sanctions, if necessary.
OCR's investigation of LAUSD is important in many ways, not the least of which is the fact that the district has repelled, minimized or neglected virtually all previous efforts that focused on Black students. It is imperative that the investigation not continue that reprehensible pattern. This column has repeatedly emphasized that ultimately, the solution to low achievement--and other social and political problems--rests with the people, systemic barriers notwithstanding. The public must become more directly accountable for improving educational results.
There are no easy solutions. However, in this case, OCR's compliance review which focuses only on LAUSD's English language learners is a serious oversight and is of considerable concern to Blacks, especially. Black students must also be accorded top priority, commensurate with their enforced status as low achievers; fairness and equity are inseparable. Both Black children, many "Standard English Learners," themselves, and English Language Learners not only deserve, but have a legal and moral right to a quality education.
Larry Aubry can be contacted at