The U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights has launched an investigation into allegations that the San Mateo Union High School District is discriminating against Chinese students.
A discrimination complaint lodged against the California school system has the agency looking into claims that the district holds Chinese students to "different standards for demonstrating residency or guardianship than students of other races" and nationalities, a department spokesperson told The Wall Street Journal.
The civil rights complaint comes as at least a dozen Chinese students say they have been transferred from top-performing high schools to low-performing ones. The district says the students were transferred because they don't reside with their parents -- who, in many cases, live in China -- and instead live in homes owned by relatives.
Private tutor Marian Kong filed a complaint on behalf of two students who she said fell victim to the district's bias. Both were accepted to attend high-performing, Asian-majority Mills High School last fall, and lived with guardians whose addresses fell within zoning boundaries for the school. But just days later, they were transferred to lower-performing Capuchino High for failing to show proof of residency for Mills.
District policy bases student-school placement decisions on residency, which can be proven with a parent or guardian's name on a deed or lease documents, or a notarized affidavit of a student's residence.
The students are calling foul on the residency claims, noting that they provided the required documentation and say that other factors are spurring the transfers.
"Some other students said the same thing happened to them," 16-year-old Leland Lam, who was transferred from Mills to Capuchino, told the San Francisco Chronicle. "They think [the district] wanted to boost Capuchino's scores."
California schools are scored on the Academic Performance Index -- a scale that ranges from 200 to 1,000. In the 2010-2011 school year, Mills High School topped the district's scores at 863 while Capuchino landed at the bottom with 748. Asian American students, who account for 55 percent of those enrolled at Mills and just 14 percent of those at Capuchino, averaged a district-wide 900 API.
The API is considered the "cornerstone" of the state's high-stakes student accountability system that determines whether a school meets federal Adequate Yearly Progress requirements under the No Child Left Behind law. A poor API and failure to meet AYP could mean state intervention that range from giving students the option to transfer out to school closures and staff turnover.
California submitted an application seeking a waiver from NCLB last month, but its application lacks key reform plans outlined by the president. So far, 32 states and Washington, D.C. have been granted waivers.
San Mateo Union High School District has issued a statement noting its cooperation with the Education Department's probe into the discrimination claims, but declines to "comment on the substance of an ongoing investigation."
Kirk Black, associate superintendent of human resources and administrative services for the district, told the San Mateo Daily Journal that other factors like school capacity issues or that other students were sent to Mills due to a need for better English-learner classes could have also forced the displacement of students from Mills to Capuchino.
Still, "this seems to only happen to Chinese," Kong told the Wall Street Journal. "I don't know why."
The story out of San Mateo draws on controversy surrounding Asians in the American education system. Findings released last month by the Asian Pacific Americans in Higher Education and national Commission on Asian American and Pacific Islander Research in Education show that most Asian Americans support race-conscious practices in college admissions.
The results counter a common perception that it's harder for Asians to gain admission to American colleges -- to the point that for the sole purposes of admission, some Asian students don't self-identify with the race while applying to colleges.