Saturday, December 20, 2008


• JUDGE BLOCKS MANDATORY ALGEBRA TESTING FOR CALIFORNIA EIGHTH-GRADERS: Judge Shelleyanne W.L. Chang ruled that the state Board of Education may have overstepped its authority in adopting the plan.

by Howard Blume | LA Times

December 20, 2008 -- A Sacramento Superior Court judge Friday blocked a controversial state plan requiring that all California eighth-graders be tested in algebra. The state's algebra mandate would have been the most ambitious in the nation.
The state Board of Education approved the high-reaching goal in July as a way to push school districts into having all students enroll in algebra by the end of the eighth grade. State board president Ted Mitchell vowed to appeal the decision.

Currently, just over 50% of the state's eighth-graders take algebra, and 42% of those score proficient or better. Those numbers are trending upward, possible evidence that efforts in recent years to focus on algebra have reaped rewards. The new mandate requiring algebra tests for all eighth-graders would have taken effect in three years.

Critics characterized that target as unrealistic, even counterproductive.

"I strongly believe that algebra is, in fact, necessary," said state Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell. Still, he said, "We cannot just tell students and teachers the end goal and simply expect them to get there on their own. Without additional funding, we're simply setting our students and our system up for failure."

O'Connell, along with the California Teachers Assn. and organizations representing school district leaders, had sued the state Board of Education. Its members had approved the new rules under last-minute pressure from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose spokeswoman said Friday that he "remains steadfast in his commitment to increasing academic standards."

Judge Shelleyanne W.L. Chang ruled that the state board probably adopted the policy without proper public notice. And state board members also may have overstepped their legal authority.

Chang indicated that state educators might not be ready to achieve 100% success in algebra. She noted that nearly one-half of all fifth-graders are not proficient in basic math. And "approximately one-third of the state's middle-school Algebra I teachers are either underprepared or teach out-of-field" -- that is, they are not adequately trained algebra teachers.

Meeting the mandate would require the state to hire 3,000 more qualified teachers and offer substantial additional training to 1,000 underprepared math instructors, said David Sanchez, president of the California Teachers Assn.

O'Connell's staff has estimated that the requirement would cost $3.1 billion at a time when the state is slashing even larger amounts from its budget as a result of the economy.

Supporters of the algebra policy expressed disappointment. "It's incomprehensible that we have to argue about teaching kids more," said Russlynn Ali, executive director of Oakland-based Education Trust-West, a nonprofit advocacy and research group.

Incoming Los Angeles Schools Supt. Ramon C. Cortines said a key problem is that in California "algebraic concepts are not embedded" properly in the lower grades. But he cited recent progress at Virgil and Berendo middle schools as cause for optimism, adding that L.A.'s push in algebra would continue unabated.

"We're not backing off," he said.



• PROP. 209 DOESN'T AFFECT MAGNET SCHOOLS, JUDICIAL PANEL RULES: Race-based admissions are not prohibited, judges say. An appeal seems unlikely.

by Mitchell Landsberg | LA Times

December 20, 2008 -- Magnet schools in Los Angeles won a significant court victory Friday when a state appellate panel rejected a lawsuit charging that they violated California's Proposition 209, which outlawed affirmative action in the state.

In strong, clear language, the three-judge panel said an organization affiliated with Proposition 209 author Ward Connerly was wrong to claim that the Los Angeles Unified School District could no longer use the race of students as a factor in magnet school admissions. Race-based admissions were mandated in a 1981 court order that remains in effect despite Proposition 209, the appeals court said.

Although Connerly's organization could still appeal to the state Supreme Court, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer who took part in the case on behalf of the district said she thought the challenge was effectively over.

"It's an unequivocal victory for students in this district and terrific news for students statewide," Catherine Lhamon said.

Because the ruling was based on largely technical grounds, Connerly said it was not a serious setback to his campaign against affirmative action. "This isn't something that challenges 209," he said. "But I think it's just the wrong way for us to be going with regard to the issue of race, at a time when we just elected a self-identified black man as president and we're trying to get beyond race."

In an interview, incoming L.A. Schools Supt. Ramon C. Cortines said he might not have fought the lawsuit had he been in charge when it was filed in 2005. He said he supports the concept of magnet schools, which use strong academics or specialized curricula to attract students citywide, but thinks that using them as a tool for desegregation might be an outdated idea. In a district where more than 90% of students are nonwhite, it is no longer possible to integrate the school system, he said. The magnet system mandates that 30% or 40% of the seats in a school be set aside for white students.

Asked if he thought the district could have responded to the suit by halting use of race in magnet admissions, he said, "I think they could." He added that he didn't want to be a Monday-morning quarterback.

Proposition 209, passed by voters in 1996, prohibited state and local governments in California from discriminating against or granting preferential treatment to anyone based on race. It made exceptions for preexisting court-ordered desegregation programs. The case against Los Angeles Unified was based on the theory that a judge in 1981 had ended his court's jurisdiction in the desegregation case against the district, leaving it defenseless against Proposition 209.

The appeals court said that was not the case. "We begin our analysis," wrote 2nd District Appellate Court Judge Sandy R. Kriegler, "with the undisputed material fact that the Superior Court's 1981 final order has never been reversed, overruled, vacated, revoked, modified or withdrawn."

Sharon Browne, a lawyer for the Pacific Legal Foundation who argued the case on behalf of Connerly's organization, the American Civil Rights Foundation, said she would decide next week whether to appeal.

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