Florida challenged in civil rights case

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ORLANDO, Fla. -- The Southern Poverty Law Center late last week filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice alleging that Florida's race-based education goals for minority students violate civil rights law.

In October 2012, the state established reading and math goals for students that varied by race, with Asians expected to perform best and black students the worst. The plan is set to go into effect for the 2013-14 school year.

It sets goals of 90 percent of Asian-American students to be reading at grade level by 2018 versus 88 percent of white students, 81 percent of Latino students and 74 percent of black students. In math, 92 percent of Asian-Americans are expected to perform at grade level, versus 86 percent of white students, 80 percent of Latino students and 74 percent of black students.

"When I found out they were going to set lower standards for me based on the color of my skin, I felt devastated," said Robert Burns, a black 14-year-old who is party to the case. "I don't think it's fair. I don't think it's right."

The complaint, which was filed jointly with the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach, asks the Justice Department to intervene and prevent the state from implementing the goals, which the nonprofit civil rights group calls discriminatory.

Kathleen Oropeza, a founder of Orlando-based Fund Education Now, said she is glad to see discussion revived about the race-based goals.

"Our long-range plan in Florida indicates it's OK with the Florida Board of Education to leave some children at the table," she said. "This was a conversation that was glossed over."

And state board member John R. Padget, who objected to the goals before the board adopted them, said Friday he still has concerns.

"I continue to believe that all children can learn, and I'm against any signals or messages to the contrary," he said. "Florida shouldn't have different expectations for different groups of children."

The goals, if met, would narrow but not eliminate existing achievement gaps among student groups. But they are not acceptable because of the message they send, said Jerri Katzerman, deputy legal director for the Southern Poverty Law Center.

"When you set low expectations, that's what you get," she said.

Florida has 2.7 million students, more than half of whom are black or Latino. Mr. Katzerman said other states are planning to continue to track student performance by race, but not the way Florida plans to.

State officials have said the new goals will not be part of Florida's A-to-F grading system, but progress will be reported. Schools and districts that fall short will have to write improvement plans.

"Children who fall behind in reading and math will almost certainly have fewer opportunities," Mr. Katzerman said. "Florida is sentencing all of its kids to lower-paying jobs because their state doesn't believe they can do any better."

When the state Board of Education approved the plan last year, the race-based goals were criticized as creating negative perceptions.

"The undertone of setting lower targets for minority students for many feels like a step back into a disturbing history," Orange County Public Schools superintendent Barbara Jenkins said then.

Robert, who is going into the ninth grade in Miami-Dade County, said the goals should all be 100 percent.

"If you expect 60, I'll give you 60. If you shoot for the moon, I'll land on the stars," he said.

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