The state Department of Education will scrutinize school districts more closely to see that all English language learners are receiving services they’re entitled to, under the terms of a settlement of a two-year-old a lawsuit that the ACLU of Southern California and the Asian Pacific American Legal Center filed against the state.
Among the stipulations, the education department will ask the Legislature for money this year for three full-time consultants to monitor districts whose data show they failed to provide services for all students. Most importantly, said David Sapp, the ACLU’s director of education advocacy/legal counsel, the settlement affirms that as districts shift to local control, “the state has an indispensable role as a backstop when the responsibility to serve all English learners breaks down at the local level.”
Nearly a quarter of the state’s 6 million students are designated English learners. Targeted language instruction helps them become fluent in English so that they can succeed in core academic classes. Along with students with disabilities, English learners had the lowest scores among student subgroups in the new Smarter Balanced tests that were released last week, and they also have had significantly higher dropout rates.
The ACLU and other organizations filed the lawsuit, D.J. et al v. State of California et al, on behalf of a half-dozen students in April 2013 after 251 districts acknowledged that 20,000 English learners received no services in 2010-11. While they comprise less than 2 percent of English learners, the ACLU said it believed the true number was larger. More than half of the 20,000 students were concentrated in seven districts, including Compton Unified, Los Angeles Unified and three high school districts: Salinas Union High School District; Grossmont Union High School District in San Diego County and William S. Hart Union High School District in Los Angeles County.
School districts receive both federal and state funding earmarked for English learner services.
State officials’ initial response was to question the validity of the district survey that provided the data and said they were satisfied that 98 percent of English learners had received services amid substantial budget cuts. The state also pointed to a smaller oversight role of the state under the Local Control Funding Formula, which was adopted by the time the case went to trial.
“A state cannot abdicate its supervisory responsibilities by ignoring credible evidence of persistent or significant district noncompliance,” said Judge James Chalfant.
Under the new funding formula, districts receive extra funding for each English learner they enroll, and they are required to spend that on increased or improved services for the students. Districts are required to explain how they will use the money annually in a Local Control and Accountability Plan. But the plaintiffs argued and Los Angeles Superior Court Judge James Chalfant agreed that local control does not absolve the state of its responsibility to ensure students are served.
In his 45-page decision, Chalfant ruled the state had violated a 30-year-old federal law requiring services for English learners as well as the state Constitutional guarantee that all students are entitled to an equal opportunity for an education.
“A state cannot abdicate its supervisory responsibilities by ignoring credible evidence of persistent or significant district noncompliance,” Chalfant wrote. “If districts fail to provide services (to English language learners) and the state has notice of this failure, the state has a duty … to take reasonable action.”
Instead of appealing the ruling, the state settled and agreed to pay $800,000 for the plaintiffs’ attorneys’ fees.
“Serving English learners, who make up nearly one-quarter of our public school students, is one of my top priorities,” State Superintendent of Instruction Tom Torlakson said in a press release. “We are eager to carry out the terms of this settlement, including adding staff and providing additional guidance to districts, so together we can make sure English learners get the support they deserve.”
In his Blueprint for Great Schools Version 2.0 (see point 3.10), which he released this summer, Torlakson called for an English learning master plan, establishing uniform policies for classifying children as English learners and reclassifying them as English proficient, and highlighting effective teaching strategies. Advocates for English learners have repeatedly sought, without success, a state master plan.