ACLU warns it will sue state over 20,000 unserved English learners
Jan 24, 2013 | By John Fensterwald | 11 Comments
The American Civil Liberties Union of California and the Asian Pacific American Legal Center threatened yesterday to sue the state within 30 days if it doesn’t ensure that school districts provide more than 20,000 students with limited English proficiency the services to which they’re legally entitled.
In a letter sent to state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson and State Board of Education President Michael Kirst, the ACLU charged the state with a “long-standing abdication of its responsibility” and gave the state a month to indicate how it would notify districts that aren’t following the law and track the services they should be offering.
The failure to provide services, wrote Mark Rosenbaum, chief counsel of the ACLU of Southern California, leads to “drastic consequences” for English language learners, who are then “most at risk of dropping out or experiencing persistent academic failure.” The graduation rate for English learners, according to state data, was only 60 percent in 2010-11.
In data tables on its website that list categories of specialized language instruction students received, the state Department of Education acknowledges that 20,318 of 1.4 million English learners aren’t getting any help at all. The services, which can start with a year of English immersion followed by various types of instruction in mainstream classes and additional specialized classes, are intended to lead to proficiency in academic language skills.
In a written response to the ACLU’s letter, the director of the state’s English Learner Support Division, Karen Cadiero-Kaplan, praised the services received by 98 percent of English learners and said that the state has met its obligation and that dissatisfied parents of English learners should “work with their local school district” and, if necessary, file a complaint against the district themselves.
“Despite the enormous financial strains of recent years, California has made dramatic progress in seeing that all English learners receive appropriate instruction and services,” she stated.
Although the 20,318 students represent only about 1.5 percent of the state’s 1.5 million English learners, documentation provided by the ACLU indicates that more than half are in seven districts, including three high school districts: Salinas Union High (1,618 of 3,784 EL students – 43 percent – receiving no services); Grossmont Union High (1,389 of 3,368 EL students) in San Diego County and William S. Hart Union High (1,142 of 2,118 EL students) in Los Angeles County. The 4,150 students in Los Angeles Unified, while comprising the largest concentration, represent only 2 percent of the district’s English learners. In Compton Unified, 1,697 of 10,505 English learners (16 percent) get no services. All told, the unserviced students are in 251 districts (26 percent of the total), small and large, urban and rural.
Districts are required to report annually the services they provide. The ACLU’s complaint doesn’t address the appropriateness or quality of the services. Since all of the data are self-reported by the districts, the numbers may be understated, the “tip of the iceberg,” Rosenbaum said, but no one knows because the state is not checking. And the large numbers in the high schools indicate these are long-term English learners who may have received inadequate language training since elementary school and are now languishing. Districts are obligated under federal and state laws, backed by the 1974 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Lau v. Nichols, which involved a San Francisco lawsuit, to provide services to non-English speakers.
An estimated 85 percent of English language learners in California were born in America. Most live in homes where English is not the primary language. A survey of districts in the 2010 study “Reparable Harm” for the nonprofit Californians Together by language expert Laurie Olsen found that 59 percent of English learners in grades 6-12 are long-term English learners: those who were in school at least six years in this country, had stalled in gaining English fluency as measured by the annual California English Language Development Test (CELDT) and had failed the California Standards Test (CST) in English with scores of basic or below basic. In one out of three districts, 75 percent of English learners struggle as long-term ELs, the report said.
Obligations come with money
Critics have suggested there is a financial incentive for districts to overclassify students as English learners and then not to reclassify them as English proficient. English learners receive federal Title III aid, amounting to $105 per student, plus state aid through the $1 billion program Economic Impact Aid, which worked out to an average of $337 per student last year, according to state figures. The “Reparable Harm” report concluded that most districts lack a definition or means of identifying and monitoring the progress of English learners. After receiving weak help in elementary school, many long-term English learners end up with more of what didn’t work before: “inappropriate placement in mainstream (no program), being placed and kept in classes with newcomer English Learners, being taught by largely unprepared teachers, overassigned and inadequately served in intervention and support classes, being precluded from participation in electives, and with limited access to the full curriculum.”
Shelly Spiegel-Coleman, executive director of Californians Together, a Long Beach-based organization advocating for low-income students and English learners, said that the state has cut back on monitoring districts’ English language services from 250 per year – or about an average of once every four years several years ago – to 60 per year now. “The state has an obligation to find out why students are not being served,” she said Wednesday.
Advocacy groups for high-needs students like Californians Together, the Education Trust-West and Public Advocates are worried that the state’s role in overseeing programs for English learners may shrink further under Gov. Jerry Brown’s school funding reforms. Brown has proposed at least about an extra $2,400 for every English learner, low-income student and youth in foster care. There would be a cap of five years in bonus money for English learners, as a disincentive to keep students in programs too long. Brown would shift the primary role of holding districts accountable for spending the money wisely and appropriately to parents and taxpayers; the district would make available an academic accountability plan tied to district spending.
Brown hasn’t fleshed out details, but advocacy groups want more oversight by the county offices of education or the state. A lawsuit by the ACLU over the 20,000 unserved English learners could be a precursor of battles to come.