Faced With Lawsuit, Florida Revamps Education forLanguage-Minority Pupils
By Peter Schmidt
Faced with a lawsuit by a coalition of advocacy groups, the Florida Board of Education has approved a sweeping plan for improving the education of the state's 60,000 language-minority students.
Under an agreement reached with the advocacy groups last month after almost a year of negotiations, the board moved to implement a long list of state standards designed to ensure educational equity for language-minority students in each of the state's 67 county school districts.
Advocacy groups hailed the plan as the most extensive statewide expansion of services for language-minority students to be approved anywhere in the country in the past 10 years.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs in the suit said two groups of students in the state would be most likely to benefit from the settlement. They are the children of migrant workers, who have been attending school in many rural districts with small or nonexistent bilingual staffs, and Creole-speaking Haitian children, who the lawyers said have been drastically underserved.
U.S. District Court Judge James L. King issued a consent order last month giving the court the power to enforce the agreement.
Sydney H. McKenzie, general counsel for the state education department, said Commissioner of Education Betty Castor agreed to the plan after she determined that Florida's smaller school districts needed more state guidance in dealing with language minorities.
The new rules set standards for the recruitment and training of teachers of English as a second lanand bilingual teachers, requiring proficiency for those who teach in a student's home language.
The plan also establishes rules governing the placement, assessment, and instruction of language-minority students in English and other subjects, and requires districts to submit three-year plans for serving language-minority students as a condition for receiving state funding.
The new rules guarantee language-minority children equal access to special programs for the handicapped, the gifted and talented, and potential dropouts. The state education department will be required to monitor implementation of the plan and submit status reports on an annual basis.
Camilo Perez, director of national advocacy for Multicultural Education, Training, and Advocacy Inc., described the education of language minorities in Florida as "terrible" prior to the suit. The San Francisco-based nonprofit organization, which represented the Florida coalition, also has sued to expand programs for language minorities in Texas, California, Colorado, Arizona, and Massachusetts.
"Outside of Miami and a couple of major cities, you had thousands of kids going entirely unserved, and other kids inappropriately served, with the state providing no guidance to local districts," Mr. Perez said.
"The problem is in the geopolitics of Florida," he maintained, noting that Tallahassee, the state capital, "is a long way from downtown Miami, geographically and culturally."
"The tendency has always been for the assumption that most of these kids are in Miami, let Miami deal with it," he added. "The reali0is that over the last 20 years the Latino and Haitian and Asian minorities have moved out beyond Miami."
In an effort to determine how well Florida's Haitian children are being educated, the agreement also requires a statewide count of their numbers for the first time.
"The count, of course, is the first step toward reaching an idea of what services are needed," Mr. Perez said. "Until you have an accurate count, there is not an accurate perception of the need for Creole-speaking staff."
Represented in the suit were the League of United Latin American Citizens, the Florida State Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Branches, the Haitian Refugee Center, the Haitian Educators Association, the Spanish-American League Against Discrimination, the Central Florida Farmworkers Association, the American Hispanic Educators Association of Dade, Aspira, and several Hispanic and Haitian parents and students.
Among the defendants named in the suit were the state education department, Commissioner Castor, and Gov. Bob Martinez.
The suit charged that the state, in its failure to require an adequate education for language-minority students, was in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Chapters 1 and 2 of the Elementary School Education Act, and the Education of the Handicapped Act.
The signing of the consent agreement was preceded by the passage in June of the state's first law requiring that statewide educational standards for language minorities be established.