Civil rights complaint lodged against Florida’s student achievement plan

The Southern Poverty Law Center filed a federal civil rights complaint today alleging that the Florida Department of Education is discriminating against black and Hispanic students by adopting a plan that sets lower academic expectations for students of color. 

The complaint, filed with the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, describes how the plan “perpetuates stereotypes that certain individuals are less capable than others based on nothing other the color of their skin” – creating a “self-fulfilling prophecy” of lower achievement for an entire generation of students. 

The complaint, announced at the National Association of Black Journalists’ annual convention in Orlando, Fla., is being brought on behalf of the state’s black and Hispanic students. More than half of Florida’s 2.7 million public school students are black or Hispanic. 

“The research is clear: Low expectations result in low achievement,” said Jerri Katzerman, SPLC deputy legal director. “By setting lower expectations for black and Hispanic students, Florida is telling these students that it is their skin color – not their hard work and perseverance – that will determine their success in school. This plan will only widen the achievement gap in Florida classrooms.” 

The plan sets a goal of 90 percent of Asian-American students and 88 percent of white students to be reading at grade level by 2018, but only 74 percent of black students and 81 percent of Hispanic students are expected to read at grade level.

The state also sets lower expectations for math with 92 percent of Asian-American students and 86 percent of white students expected to perform at grade level by 2018, but only 74 percent of black students and 80 percent of Hispanic students are expected to perform at grade level. 

Under these standards, almost the entire population of the Miami-Dade County Public Schools district – which is more than 90 percent black and Hispanic, and is the state’s most populous school district – is held to an academic standard far lower than districts with large white and Asian-American student populations. 

“Florida perpetuates the prejudiced perception that African-American and Hispanic students are less capable than their white and Asian-American peers,” the complaint says. It further states that the plan “waters down achievement requirements so that on paper it appears that Florida is making greater strides in closing the achievement gap when in actuality the gap will be widening while these students are being held to a lesser standard.” 

Noting that former President George W. Bush once condemned such approaches as “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” the complaint describes how the plan violates the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin in programs or activities receiving federal money. 

The plan creates a risk of segregation as children of color are more likely to be placed in classes for lower ability students – another violation of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits public school segregation, the complaint says.

The complaint also outlines how research has shown that lower expectations become self-fulfilling prophecies, noting that when teachers expect more from their students, they provide higher quality instruction that challenges students to meet those expectations. 

“Florida claims this plan will one day result in all students reaching the same high standards, but there is simply no evidence to support this claim,” Katzerman said. “One thing is certain: This plan will fail an entire generation of students of color simply because Florida doesn’t believe in them.”

The Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County joined the SPLC in filing the complaint.