MIAMI (Reuters) - Florida was hit with a complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Justice on Friday accusing it of race-based education goals that violate civil rights law by setting "severely lower expectations" for black and Hispanic students.
The Southern Poverty Law Center and Legal Aid Society of Florida's Palm Beach County jointly filed the complaint on behalf of public school children.
The complaint said the Florida Department of Education's recently adopted student achievement goals, under which Asians are expected to perform best and blacks the worst, "violate fundamental civil rights."
Under a plan drafted in October 2012 and due to take effect in the 2013-2014 school year, Florida set reading goals for public school students under which 90 percent of Asian-Americans were expected to read at grade level by 2018 compared with 88 percent of white students.
At the same time, 81 percent of Hispanic students were to be reading at grade level by 2018 versus just 74 percent of black students.
Similar disparities were predicted in the goals for math.
"Rather than promote equal educational achievement for all, Florida set alarmingly different goals for children of different racial and ethnic backgrounds. Florida's scheme sets severely lower expectations for African-American and Hispanic students, instead of marshaling its resources to ensure educational equality," the complaint said.
"By setting lower expectations for already disadvantaged racial and ethnic groups of children, Florida promises that disparities in educational achievement on the basis of race and national origin will continue," according to the complaint.
The Florida Department of Education said it had no immediate comment on the complaint filed with Anurima Bhargava, chief of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division.
Tiffany Cowie, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education, said it had made gains in closing what she called the "achievement gap" between students of different ethnic and racial backgrounds.
"For two consecutive years, Florida has ranked first in the country on the graduation index for Hispanic students according to the 2013 Diplomas Count study," Cowie said. "We will not allow any politically motivated litigation to slow or stop the progress made by teachers and schools across the state."
Friday's complaint said setting lower educational expectations for minorities perpetuates stereotypes and "harkens back to an era that tolerated state-sanctioned racial discrimination."
It would harm many, the complaint said, since more than half of the 2.7 million students enrolled annually in Florida's public schools were black or Hispanic.
(Reporting by Tom Brown; Editing by Toni Reinhold)