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Feds Say Districts Can't End Services to ELLs 'Prematurely'

The civil rights division of the U.S. Department of Justice has announced that with the adoption of new administrative rules, the Illinois State Board of Education has satisfied a concern federal officials had that Illinois school districts weren't providing adequate services to English-language learners.

And in the July 13 press release making that announcement, Thomas E. Perez, the assistant attorney general for the civil rights division, states that an English-language learner in this country has the right to receive special help to learn English as long as he or she has that label.

"All English-language learner students have the right to appropriate language support services until they achieve English proficiency, and when educational agencies terminate such services prematurely, they deny these students the equal educational opportunity that federal law guarantees them," Mr. Perez said in the press release.

In the decade I've been reporting on these students, this is the clearest statement I've seen from a high-level federal official saying schools need to provide special help to ELLs as long as they are in that category. From some of the audits I've read of services to ELLs in large urban school districts, I gather that many ELLs do not get special help to learn the language once they reach intermediate or advanced levels of English proficiency but haven't yet tested as fluent.

The Justice Department press release says federal officials previously determined that the Illinois board was violating the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974 because it only required school districts to keep English-language learners in special programs to learn the language for three years. That civil rights law says a school district must "take appropriate action to overcome language barriers that impede equal participation by its students in its instructional programs." The Justice Department spells out how the law applies to ELLs here.

The statement says that the Illinois board responded that Illinois school districts weren't violating federal law, but the board would amend its administrative rules to clarify that ELLs have a right to receive services after three years if they haven't yet attained proficiency in English. In Illinois, students are considered to be ELLs until they pass the state's English-language-proficiency test.

In a phone interview today, Darren Reisberg, the general counsel for the Illinois State Board of Education, told me that federal officials had asked state officials how they knew that ELLs were receiving a meaningful educational experience after they left special programs to learn the language. The state officials answered that they stood ready to investigate any complaints that ELLs weren't appropriately served after the three-year time period, but hadn't received any such complaints, he said.

The new rules, expected to go into effect by the end of the month, require school districts to submit to the board of education plans outlining how ELLs are served beyond year three, the qualifications of staff involved in those services, and the resources and materials used to support them. (The rules don't say that a district has to provide the same kind of services after three years that it did for the first three years that a student was learning English.)

The purpose of the new rules, Reisberg says, is to say: "Hey, districts, just remember all students need to receive a meaningful educational experience, and you have to show us in a plan how you are doing that."

Reisberg said that with parental consent, ELLs can stay in special programs to learn English for more than three years. He said the Illinois board has asked the Justice Department for guidance on what a meaningful educational experience looks like for ELLs after three years of special help, but the federal government hasn't yet delivered it. "At this point, we're shooting in the dark," he said.

I've sent an e-mail to the Justice Department asking for further comment and a response on whether federal officials will issue guidance on what kind of language support is appropriate for ELLs who have already received services for a very long time.

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