The U.S. Department of Education will investigate the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) to determine whether any intentional or unintentional discrimination has played a role in the persistence of low indicators of academic achievement for African-American students.
Federal officials said that poor academic performance itself is not proof of discrimination. They also noted, however, that discrimination does not have to be intentional for them to intervene in the operations of local school districts.
The investigation will be conducted by the federal agency's Office for Civil Rights.
Word of the probe came in a recent letter to community groups. The communication came in response to an earlier letter from community leaders who had expressed frustration with the continued indicators of poor performance by African-American students as a whole in the LAUSD system.
"The message being sent to Los Angeles' African American community is that the devastation to black students being caused by the failure of public education is of little consequence to you or your department," a coalition of community leaders wrote in the May 21 letter to the Department of Education.
The investigation is expected to be an extension of an ongoing probe into the level of educational services LAUSD provides to students who are learning English.
Both of the investigations have come in response to calls from community leaders, and will play out against a backdrop of budget cuts at LAUSD. The district has long had a poor track record, with an estimated 50% of students dropping out before high school graduation. African-American and Latino students generally drop out at an even higher rate and rank lower than average on various academic measurements compared to the overall performance indicators.
Critics have also charged that the ongoing budget crunch facing LAUSD has led the district to target teachers with the least seniority for layoffs, using seniority as the main criterion. Critics have contended that the criterion hits schools with large populations of African-American and Latino students harder because they tend to be in less affluent neighborhoods, and veteran teachers often transfer to jobs at campuses in wealthier areas. That leaves the campuses in less affluent areas staffed by many younger teachers, meaning the layoffs are likely to disrupt continuity in the educational process to an unfair degree, critics have said. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) recently took up a case charging that the criterion for layoffs could amount to a discriminatory practice against students in lower-income neighborhoods.
The probe of educational services for English learners began several months ago. LAUSD has approximately 220,000 students whose first language isn't English — more than any other school district in the country, according to officials. English learners, most of them Latino, make up about one-third of the entire LAUSD student population.
Approximately 11% of LAUSD students are African-American, a total of 70,000.
The investigation into the effects of LAUSD's operations on African-American students is expected to focus initially on five elementary schools with large numbers of African-American students, including campuses located in the View Park district and the cities of Carson and Hawthorne, as well as five largely white elementary schools in the districts of Bel-Air, Tarzana, Studio City and Encino.
"Our administration is committed to responding to communities and the civil rights issues they confront for all students," Russlynn Ali, who serves as assistant secretary for civil rights for the Department of Education, wrote in the letter to community leaders.