August 8, 2011

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Funding for At-Risk Youth Lacks Oversight, Advocates Say

By Kendall Taggart  |  California Watch  —

More than a dozen civil rights and education organizations are contending that the California Department of Education unlawfully stopped monitoring millions of dollars in funding for low-income and minority students.

The Asian Pacific American Legal Center, along with other advocates, filed a friend of the court brief Friday claiming the Department of Education has dramatically reduced the number of on-site program reviews and replaced them with off-site reviews. The advocates are concerned that school districts might use the money for other purposes.

The Youth Law Center and California Rural Legal Assistance filed the original lawsuit in June 2009, seeking a court order to reinstate hundreds of canceled on-site monitoring visits. The case, Alejo, et al. v. O’Connell, was sparked by the Department of Education’s decision to suspend monitoring visits for certain programs in the 2008-2009 school year.

“During these challenging times, I want districts and schools to be able to focus their energy on improving student achievement and not on preparing for program audits,” wrote Jack O’Connell, the superintendent of public instruction at the time.

An attorney with the Youth Law Center says the Department of Education has been reluctant to crack down on noncompliant school districts.

“I suspect the real thing they wanted to do was substantially reduce the number of school districts that they had to review,” said Deborah Escobedo, a staff attorney. “They had a set number they wanted to do, and they came up with a criteria that would get them to it. In times of real economic and budget crunches is when you really have to make sure that this money is going to these needy kids.”

The attorney general’s office deferred comment to the California Department of Education, which did not respond in time for publication.

A lower court disagreed with the Youth Law Center and California Rural Legal Assistance and found that the Department of Education had the authority to temporarily suspend on-site monitoring and had taken sufficient steps to monitor funds in the interim. The case is now on appeal.

Yungsuhn Park, an attorney at the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, says the organization is concerned that without vigilant on-site monitoring, parents won’t be able to effectively advocate for their children. Schools are required to translate all documents to parents whenever 15 percent or more of enrolled students speak a primary language other than English, but Park says what districts claim to be doing and what they’re actually doing can be very different.

“In the Long Beach community, where there’s a significant Cambodian immigrant community, we’ve heard of notices being translated that are so poorly done that they’re incomprehensible,” she said. “That’s an example of where the school may appear to be in compliance but without actually having talked to the parent or actually having been on site to review the compliance, it could easily be overlooked.”

Officials at the Department of Education said they’ve recently implemented new policies and some concerns raised in the lawsuit are no longer relevant.

Under the new procedures, the department compiles a list of possible districts to visit based on academic and financial criteria. Noncompliance history is then factored into the final decision of which districts will be monitored in a given year.

“In terms of noncompliance history, that’s not a routine criteria that we use, but it is something that gets considered with each cycle,” said Keric Ashley, director of the Data Management Division at the Department of Education.

He notes that districts change administrators fairly often, and noncompliance in previous years doesn’t indicate a current problem. Parents, community members and advocates can always file a complaint if they think their school is not meeting the requirements of the law, which can prompt additional monitoring, he added.

But advocates aren’t satisfied with the new selection criteria. They’re concerned that by placing greater emphasis on academic achievement than noncompliance, important violations will be missed.

“Standardized test scores provide absolutely no information regarding whether a school or school district is complying with parental notification and participation requirements mandated by federal and state law,” according to the brief.