By Barbara Liston
ORLANDO (Reuters) - Civil rights groups are targeting Florida with a new petition drive and grassroots movement to overturn the state's race-based educational achievement goals, which they argue will cripple a generation of students of color.
The petition calls on the governor and superintendents of each public school district to set "equal academic goals" for all children.
"This is state-sanctioned racism -- something we have not seen since the fight to end education inequality and segregation in the 1960s," according to the background narrative attached to the petition, which is to be launched Thursday night.
Florida is one of 23 states that set different goals for student groups based on race as well as other factors including national origin, ethnicity and poverty, according to Education Week.
Florida adopted its plan after it became evident that the state would fail to meet a requirement of the federal No Child Left Behind Act that all students be proficient on state achievement tests by 2013-24, according to a civil rights complaint filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center in August with the U.S. Department of Justice.
The petition drive will be launched at a community forum in Miami by the SPLC and the Dream Defenders, a group that came to national prominence last summer during its month-long sit-in at the Florida governor's office to protest the state's Stand Your Ground law.
SPLC lawyer Stephanie Langer said her group wants to raise awareness and apply public pressure on state leaders to drop race-based goals without the necessity of a prolonged legal battle.
More than half of Florida's 2.7 million public school students are black or Hispanic. Florida's five-year strategic plan adopted in 2012 sets lower achievement goals for black, Hispanic and some other student groups than for white and Asian student groups.
The starkest gap is between black and Asian student groups, which are expected to reach 74 percent and 92 percent proficiency in math, respectively, by 2018, an 18-point differential.
The Obama administration has granted waivers from some provisions of No Child Left Behind, allowing states to set varying achievement goals for students on the condition that low performers are required to make faster gains.
"Rather than adopt a race-neutral plan focused on improving education outcomes and reducing disparities, however, Florida adopted a "strategic plan" setting widely differing academic achievement for students based on race and national origin," the SPLC said.
Cheryl Etters, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Education, said the plan calls for each student group to close 50 percent of its proficiency gap within five years, and to become fully proficient within 10 years.
State education officials say the state has been closing the achievement gap over the past three years, citing various national reports.
Langer and Linda Kobert, a founder of the nonprofit advocacy group Fund Education Now, argue that the state has not done enough to ensure that the rapid progress is made.
"This is just another unfunded mandate by the state of Florida," Kobert said.
Etters said the state has expanded its assistance program for low-performing schools to include schools with consistent "D" grades.
"Not necessarily extra funding but they get targeted assistance from us and resources. We help them come up with an improvement plan. We don't come in and take over the school. The Florida constitution doesn't allow for that. But we can assist districts in what they are doing," Etters said.
Opponents of the state plan like to quote former President George W. Bush who in a 1999 speech called lower achievement goals for minority children "the soft bigotry of lower expectations." Langer said scientific research and legal precedence show that expectations often become destiny.
"Kids will only rise to what the expectations are for them," Langer said.
In the petition narrative, Langer wrote, "Once Florida's children internalize these expectations and aim lower, they are far more likely to be held back or drop out of school altogether."
(Editing by David Adams and Leslie Adler)