The federal government has singled out the Los Angeles Unified School District for its first major investigation under a reinvigorated Office for Civil Rights, officials said Tuesday.
The focus of the probe, by an arm of the U.S. Department of Education, will be whether the nation's second-largest district provides adequate services to students learning English.
Officials turned their attention to L.A. Unified because so many English learners fare poorly and because they make up about a third of district enrollment, more than 220,000 students.
"This is about helping kids receive a good education, the education they deserve," said Russlynn Ali, the department's assistant secretary for civil rights. She plans to announce the inquiry at a news conference Wednesday.
L.A. school officials said they welcomed the federal examination.
The probe would provide an outside evaluation to help the district identify and expand successful programs, said Supt. Ramon C. Cortines. "And if there are egregious areas of misconduct by the district, I will move on it immediately."
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.
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.
Federal authorities aren't accusing L.A. Unified of intentional discrimination, but the civil rights office seeks to uncover policies and practices that result in a "disparate outcome." Enforcement options include withholding federal money; more than 23% of the district's $7.16 billion operating budget comes from the federal government.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan launched the ramped-up enforcement effort Monday at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., where law enforcement officers beat and drove back 600 civil rights marchers on March 7, 1965. Without naming school systems, officials said 38 faced compliance reviews; on Tuesday it became clear that L.A. Unified was among them.
Some observers hailed a resurgent civil rights office they said had languished under the George W. Bush administration.
"This is a big deal after eight years of lackluster enforcement," said Thomas A. Saenz, president and general counsel of the locally based Mexican American Legal Defense & Educational Fund.
Less impressed was Mike Petrilli of the Fordham Institute, based in Washington, D.C.: "School districts are going to see this announcement and freak out, take shortcuts and just push minority kids into Advanced Placement whether they are ready for them or not," he wrote on his blog.
In L.A., second grade is the apparent high-water mark for English learners. At that level, 33% test as proficient in English. By eighth grade, proficiency levels decline to 2%, although that includes recent immigrants and excludes students who have moved into the "fluent" category. But even among newly fluent students, only 35% test as academically proficient in English in the 11th grade.
Language problems ultimately contribute to high dropout rates as well as the inability of many graduates to complete college and compete for jobs, researchers say.
The federal action comes two years after L.A. Unified convened what it billed as a historic summit on educating English learners.
"There was a litany of recommendations," said school board member Yolie Flores. "Then nothing happened."
She called the federal action "way overdue," adding, "unless we get external pressure or a mandate or a lawsuit, we are derelict in what we need to be doing for some students."
An internal district report cited numerous accomplishments, including the recent training of 15,000 teachers in English-language development strategies.
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.