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Federal Civil Rights Officials Release Guidance on English-Language Learners

The U.S. Departments of Education and Justice have issued a new guidance on the rights of the nation's nearly 5 million English-language learners, reminding public schools of their obligations under federal law to ensure the students have equal access to a high-quality education.

The guidance comes on the heels of the recent 40th anniversaries of Lau v. Nichols, a landmark Supreme Court decision, and the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974, both of which expanded rights of students with limited English proficiency. 

The rights of English-language learners have emerged as a significant policy issue for the Education Department as the percentage of English-learners in schools has increased. Last summer, an influx of unaccompanied immigrant children from Central America sparked a national dialogue on schools' responsibility to educate them. Education and Justice department officials issued a guidance at that time warning districts to cease any policies or practices that would "chill" or discourage students to enroll in school because they, or their parents, lack legal immigration status. 

"It is crucial to the future of our nation that these students, and all students, have equal access to a high-quality education and the opportunity to achieve their full academic potential," said the letter from Catherine Lhamon, the education department's assistant secretary for civil rights, and Vanita Gupta, the Justice Department's acting assistant attorney general for civil rights.

Under the latest guidance as outlined by federal officials, public schools must:

  • identify English-learner students in a timely, valid and reliable manner; offer all English-learner students an educationally sound language-assistance program;
  • provide qualified staff and sufficient resources for instructing English-learner students; ensure English-learner students have equitable access to school programs and activities;
  • avoid unnecessary segregation of English-learner students from other students;
  • monitor students' progress in learning English and doing grade-level classwork;
  • remedy any academic deficits English-learner students incurred while in a language assistance program;
  • move students out of language-assistance programs when they are proficient in English and monitor those students to ensure they were not prematurely removed;
  • evaluate the effectiveness of English-learner programs; and
  • provide parents with limited English proficiency with information about school programs, services, and activities in a language they understand.

The guidance also encourages state education departments and districts to re-evaluate their practices and policies to ensure compliance. To support that, the Education Department provided a toolkit, from its Office of English Language Acquisition, to help districts identify ELLs.

The two civil rights offices also provided a joint fact sheet outlining the rights of parents and guardians with limited English proficiency.

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