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State to eliminate race-based testing

Published Sep. 27, 2005

Facing discrimination lawsuits in federal court, the state plans to end the nine-year practice of using race as a criterion for admission into gifted classes.

Under a nearly completed settlement, the state would abandon the so-called Plan B program designed to increase the numbers of "underrepresented groups" _ such as African-American, Hispanic and low-income children _ into gifted classes in public schools.

"We're going to settle it; we're very close," said Education Commissioner Tom Gallagher. "We just haven't worked out all the details. We'll end up with a plan that is . . . not based on race."

The plan appeared to be achieving its goal; more minority children are taking part in the advanced classes with other talented or high-IQ children. But parents in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties claimed in court that the program discriminated against their non-minority children by holding them to a higher IQ standard than minority children.

Typically, the way Plan B works is that non-minority children must score a 130 on an IQ test to qualify for gifted classes, while minority or low-income children can post a lower score so long as they meet other criteria.

"That's a two-track system on the basis of race, and that is discrimination," said Bill Helfand, the Houston lawyer who represents the Pinellas and Hillsborough parents. "They understand that, and they're addressing it."

Eliminating the race-based admissions echoes the theme of Gov. Jeb Bush's One Florida plan, which eliminated race as a factor in university admissions and in the awarding of state contracts. Bush's attorneys have pointed out that not only does the governor believe in eliminating race as a specific factor, but also that case law would be against the state if someone were to launch a legal challenge claiming discrimination.

The settlement of the cases has been made easier by the fact that two of the three children whose parents filed the lawsuits were retested and were accepted into gifted programs, according to their lawyer. The third child entered a magnet program.

"We expect to dismiss the two lawsuits without seeing the new plan, based on their representations," said Helfand. "The parents are happy, and the state is changing the plan. That's our understanding."

Tampa lawyer Tom Gonzalez, who has represented both the Hillsborough and Pinellas school districts in the court case, said he sees no sticking points to the settlement. But, Gonzalez pointed out, the settlement and the gifted plan in question both were dictated by the state Department of Education.

Nine years ago, the state directed school districts to come up with a plan to increase minority participation in gifted classes. Districts were given some latitude. But when the discrimination lawsuits named the Pinellas and Hillsborough school districts, they were quick to raise the defense that they, and all other school districts, were acting according to a directive from the state.

Education department spokeswoman Karen Chandler said the state will schedule regional workshops to get feedback on a proposal to replace Plan B. Details of the proposal are not yet final, but Chandler said they include a series of factors that would determine eligibility, such as academic achievement, creativity and critical thinking skills. The proposal would have to be approved by the Florida Cabinet sitting and formalized as a State Board rule.