The language of exclusion
ACLU and company claim schools are using English Learner money for expenses other than teaching
By André Coleman 05/02/2013
The California Department of Education has done “irreparable harm” to students enrolled in nearly a quarter of the state’s school districts — including Los Angeles, Glendale and two in the San Gabriel Valley — by denying them legally required and already well-funded assistance, according to a lawsuit filed last week in Los Angeles Superior Court.
Brought by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Asian Pacific American Legal Center (APALC), the lawsuit comes on the heels of a Jan. 23 report released by the ACLU which found that 251 school districts reporting to the state Department of Education (CDE) admitted they failed to provide the legally mandated instruction to 20,318 English Learners, or EL students, including 104 children from the San Gabriel Unified School District, 23 from Glendale schools and 12 from schools in nearby Monrovia, according to the lawsuit. The districts used in the report were both urban and rural. There were five districts in which 1,000 EL students received no services and seven in which 500 students received no instruction. In the Los Angeles Unified School District, 4,000 EL kids received no services.
The CDE, according to the lawsuit, is not only violating state and federal laws — not to mention liable to explain how millions of dollars in state and federal funds were expended if not on those classes — but is also doing irreparable harm to students cheated out of those services.
“Students who lack fluency in English cannot realistically hope to obtain a higher education, pursue and succeed at desired career opportunities, and participate in the sorts of civic engagement that define citizenship at state and national levels. In short, children with no or limited English proficiency are denied the opportunity to achieve their full potential, which is a tragedy not only for them, but also their communities and our society as a whole,” the lawsuit states.
“The districts are telling the state these students are not receiving anything,” APALC Staff Attorney Nicole Ochi told the Pasadena Weekly. “Where is the money going? That’s a good question for them. I don’t know where the money is going. In other districts, we know some of the money has been used to pay for janitors, despite the fact those funds are specifically designated for English Learners.”
According to the CDE, 28 percent of all students in the San Gabriel Unified School District are English Learners. The Glendale and Monrovia school districts have EL student populations of 25 and 12 percent, respectively. The superintendents of those school districts did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story.
The Pasadena Unified School District — where officials have been fighting to close an academic achievement gap between English-proficient white students and African-American and Latino students — is not mentioned in the report or in the litigation. Latinos make up about 61 percent of the PUSD’s student population. The district’s EL student population totals just more than 24 percent.
According to the ACLU, one in four students in California is an English Learner. Most of those children — 82 percent — are elementary school-age immigrants or citizens being raised by foreign language-speaking parents, according to the CDE State and federal laws require that schools help these students become fluent in English so they may perform better in other academic subjects. Last year, about $1.3 billion of the $68.8 billion earmarked for public education in California was supposed to pay for programs aimed at helping these students.
According to data released by the CDE in April, the high school graduation rate for English Learners over the past two years is 61.6 percent, compared to the statewide graduation rate of 78.5 percent for all students.
Ideally, these students spend about an hour a day in language class, take bilingual education courses and get extra help from teachers and aides in regular classes. According to the CDE Web site, about 2.5 percent of students identified as English Learners received no help at all.
“I don’t trust the school district anymore,” said a parent, identified in the lawsuit only as AM. “They kept us in the dark for so long, and now they refuse to change. We have no other choice but to sue the state to get someone to make sure our children get the services they need.”
In one case, a student identified as FS received no language help in the third grade and failed most of his courses while attending a school in Compton. According to the suit, he was forced to repeat the third grade. However, after transferring to a school outside of Compton, he received EL services and passed.
“While the state takes hundreds of millions of dollars from the federal government and represents that, in fact, every EL student will receive EL services, the state’s conduct has been the opposite,” said Mark Rosenbaum, chief counsel for the Southern California branch of the ACLU.
In January, the ACLU released a report revealing that more than 25 percent of the school districts in California that serve EL students acknowledged denying services to 20,318 students.
After the report was released, the ACLU, APALC and the law firm of Latham & Watkins sent a letter to Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson and California State Board of Education members, advising them that the state’s lack of response to the report violated its duties under federal and state laws.
In response, the lawsuit notes the CDE issued a press release that same day stating “98 percent” of the state’s EL students were receiving services. “Rather than taking steps to address this widespread breakdown in the statewide program for delivering EL services, the CDE asserted that it deserved credit because only 2 percent of EL students are being denied legally mandated services,” the lawsuit states.
After more than three months, the ACLU and APALC contend state education officials still have no plans to ensure that EL students receive legally mandated services, prompting the filing of the lawsuit.
“It is a blatant violation of the law not to provide these students the most basic and essential component of their education-language to access their classes,” said Jessica Price, staff attorney with the ACLU of Southern California. “When districts report that this is happening, the state of California does absolutely nothing in response.”
California Chief Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction Richard Zeiger said that English Learners are a priority in the state’s education system.
“The California Department of Education is determined to ensure that all English Learner students receive appropriate instruction and services,” Zeiger said in a statement.
“English Learners have valuable and diverse contributions to make in their classrooms and communities,” Ochi said. “Yet many of them are unable to do so because the state fails to ensure that EL students are provided the tools necessary to learn English and access the full curriculum.”