Judge Orders Schools to Obey the Law and Educate Kids Who Need English Instruction

Friday, August 15, 2014

One-fourth of all California public school students, almost all of them U.S. citizens, are designated as English Learners (EL), kids in need of special instruction in the language in order to be properly prepared for taking core courses like science and mathematics.

More than 20,000 of them receive no English language training, and services are skimpy in one out of every four school districts in the state. On Tuesday, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge James Chalfant ruled that was a violation of state and federal law and ordered California to rectify the situation immediately.

“You've got to go ferret this out because you can't have even one child that isn't getting their instructional services,” Judge Chalfant reportedly said when issuing the ruling.

In a case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Asian Americans Advancing Justice, Public Counsel and Latham & Watkins, the judge produced an unusually long 40-page decision castigating the California Department of Education, the state Board of Education and State Superintendent of Instruction Tom Torlakson for letting 250 school districts violate state law.

The ACLU complained to the Education Department in early 2013 after the agency posted on its website that census reports indicated that 20,318 EL students were not receiving the required instruction while taking credit for providing the help to 98% of those eligible. The organization filed the lawsuit after the state blew them off.

The judge did not like the department’s response to the census report and criticism from the ACLU. “The only meaningful action taken by respondents in response to district reports that EL students were not receiving services has been to modify the reporting mechanism so that it will be impossible for districts to make such admissions in the future,” Chalfant wrote.

Gabriella Barbosa, Equal Justice Works Fellow at Public Counsel, said, “This case is about making sure the state delivers the fundamental building blocks of education, and there's nothing more basic than language. English Learners who receive language instructional services are more likely to excel in core classes like math and science, and more likely to graduate high school.”

The plaintiffs argued that the state had ignored census reports for years that indicated a lot of students were not getting proper instruction. The state responded that it compensated for that shortcoming by providing non-instructional EL services such as after-school tutoring, counseling and other programs not reported in the census. That didn’t cut it with the judge.

He said those non-instructional services can supplement EL services, but if they are regarded as a substitute, the districts need to, at the very least, report that’s what they are doing. “A district's provision of non-instructional services does not explain why the district would report that its EL students had received no instructional services. Respondents have the duty to find out why they did so.”

The state said it didn’t rely on the census for its determination about whether all students were receiving mandated help; it had its own Federal Program Monitoring system. Chalfant was not impressed. “Respondents are not free to ignore credible evidence about denials of equal educational opportunity simply because it was received through a channel never intended or designed to monitor district compliance,” the judge wrote.  

The plaintiffs were supported in their complaint by the U.S. Department of Justice, which said there was every reason to believe the situation had grown worse in recent years. The solution (pdf) was simple: “The Respondents have the duty, the data, and the tools to address this evidence. California’s EL students cannot afford to wait any longer.”

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Judge: State Must Help All English Learners (by John Fensterwald, EdSource)

Judge Tells California to Teach English Learners (by Brian Melley, Associated Press)

L.A. Judge Finds California Fails Duty to Teach English (by Matt Reynolds, Courthouse News Service)

Judge Affirms Ca’s Duty to Ensure Vital Instruction for Thousands Of English Learner Students (American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California)

Opportunity Lost Report (ACLU and Asian Pacific American Legal Center)

D.J. et al v. State of California, et al (Los Angeles County Superior Court) (pdf)

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