Civil rights groups sued the state Department of Education and the Board of Education on Wednesday, saying they are failing in their obligation to require school districts to provide 20,318 English learners with the language instruction they are entitled to by law.
The lawsuit, filed by the ACLU of Southern California and the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, cites figures provided by 251 districts showing that one out of every 50 English learner students is not receiving any English language services – a figure the plaintiffs say is conservative. Even though the state is aware of the deficiency, it hasn’t taken any action to correct the situation, the lawsuit said. A quarter, or about 1.4 million, of California’s roughly 6.2 million students are designated as English learners, according to the Department of Education.
“Can you imagine the state of California saying it had no duty if one of out 50 students were not being taught math, or how to read, or any of the core curriculum subjects; no duty, no obligations,” Mark Rosenbaum, chief counsel of the ACLU of Southern California, said at a news conference Wednesday morning.
The suit, filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court, accuses state education leaders of violating section 300 of the California Education Code, which states, in part, “The government and the public schools of California have a moral obligation and a constitutional duty to provide all of California’s children, regardless of their ethnicity or national origins, with the skills necessary to become productive members of our society, and of these skills, literacy in the English language is among the most important.”
The suit comes nearly three months after the organizations sent a demand letter to state education officials threatening legal action if they didn’t respond within 30 days. The education department responded on the 28th day, requesting a meeting, the organizations said. That conversation is confidential, but wasn’t successful, Rosenbaum indicated.
At that time, as EdSource Today reported, Karen Cadiero-Kaplan, director of the state department’s English Learner Support Division, issued a statement praising the overall record of English learner instruction for reaching more than 98 percent of students, and placing responsibility for lack of services on the school districts.
Districts receive state and federal money to help provide the services to students, averaging about $337 per student last year, according to state figures, although those amounts could change if Gov. Jerry Brown’s Local Control Funding Formula is approved.
In a new statement released Wednesday, after the suit was filed, Department of Education Chief Deputy Superintendent Richard Zeiger reiterated Cadiero-Kaplan’s comments. “The California Department of Education is determined to ensure that all English learner students receive appropriate instruction and services. Accordingly, when questions arose earlier this year, the CDE asked local educational agencies to provide additional information regarding the services they are required to provide,” Zeiger said.
Students lost in translation
Rosenbaum called the state’s response an abdication of its legal and moral obligation to English learners. He recalled a conversation with a high school student in the San Diego area who said he doesn’t understand anything that goes on in the classroom, so after class he types as many words as he can remember into a language translation application on his cell phone.
Walt Dunlop, one of the plaintiffs in the suit, is a retired teacher from Oxnard Union High School District, where he helped write the district’s master plan for English learners. The petition says he complained to the district “on multiple occasions about the systematic denial of services for (English learners).” During Wednesday’s new conference, Dunlop described observing limited English students in his school, a process called English learner shadowing, where educators examine the learning experience from the student’s point of view. Dunlop said he witnessed some students who went an entire day without speaking to either a teacher or their classmates, a condition he calls “suffocating silence.”
Dunlop also said he spoke with a number of limited English students who wanted to dropout of school because they weren’t getting anything out of their classes. His anecdotal illustrations are borne out by statistics. The latest data, released earlier this month by the CDE, shows that 23.7 percent of English learners in the class of 2012 dropped out of school. That’s compared to a statewide rate of 13.2 percent, although the dropout rate among English learners has fallen since 2009-10, when it was nearly 30 percent.
In 2010-11, the most current data available, Oxnard Union reported to the state that 588 of its 3,433 English learners were not receiving any services. Oxnard district officials didn’t respond to requests for comment Thursday.
Every district has been required to report this information to the state on an annual basis for the past 16 years. Rosenbaum said they’re not asking the state to investigate the situation, because the state collects this data and already knows the situation. A report published by the ACLU and Asian Pacific American Legal Center in January also identifies each district and the number of English language students who aren’t being served.
The legal petition also cites instances of districts reporting that no students were denied services, although an investigation by the U.S. Office of Civil Rights found that wasn’t the case. For example, the lawsuit said, “although Centinela Valley Union High School District (in Los Angeles County) reported ‘0’ (English learners) not receiving services, in 2011 the Office of Civil Rights found a majority of (English learners) were not receiving services.” A similar discrepancy is cited regarding San Juan Unified School District in Sacramento County.
Patricia Gandara, a UCLA researcher who studies English learners, said given the number of students not being served, she’s concerned about the quality of English instruction the rest of the language students are receiving, as well as what kind of training colleges of education are providing for their teacher education candidates.
“If you look at the data on English learners, with the (academic) gaps that are not really closing, it suggests that what we’re doing is not as effective as it needs to be or we would hopefully be seeing much more significant lowering of these gaps,” Gandara said. The high school Academic Performance Index for English learners last year was 649, far below the 751 statewide score, according to data from the state Department of Education. In 2011, it was 650, and in 2010 it was 668. However, scores for all groups increased during that period; in fact, the gap between English learners and other students for each of those three years was 102 points.
“I have felt for a very long time that we need to do some evaluation of what’s going on, not to go after somebody, but to see where they need support,” Gandara said. “Exactly what is going on in different classrooms, in different districts, we have a very vague idea.”
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