First federal guidance on English learners in quarter century highlights access, communications

Three out of four schools now educate students who have a native language that is not English. More than 9 percent of all public school students across the country—and 14 percent of students in Colorado—are English language learners.

But even as the population of non-native English speakers in public schools booms, districts and states have sometimes struggled to ensure that those students have the same access to school programs as their peers whose native language is English.

A new set of guidelines, released by the federal Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights today, sets out to clarify districts’ and states’ obligations to English learners. (The guidelines have also been translated into ten languages.)

“The data we have reflects the increasing diversity of our schools, including the increasing diversity of English learners,” said Catherine Lhamon, the assistant secretary for the education department’s Office for Civil rights. “We know those opportunity gaps [between English learners and their peers] are real.”

She said the new guidelines would help “avoid the need for ongoing enforcement and make sure state and district school leaders are able to satisfy their obligations,” she said.

“We’re really pleased,” said Pat Chapman, the director of the Colorado Department of Education’s Federal Programs. “It’s really helpful for us…We’ve had a toolkit in Colorado for a number of years that includes pretty much the information that they’re recommending. We will review these materials and incorporate some of the pieces of what U.S. DOE has released.”

States and school districts are required to provide English learners equal access to high-quality education under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and by the Equal Educational Opportunities Act. But the DOJ had never issued clear guidance on the issue, and the Education Department had not done so in 24 years.

The federal education department’s Office for Civil Rights have received some 475 complaints about English learners’ access to high-quality education in the last five years. And the federal justice department has agreements with more than 20 districts and states governing how they work with their learners.

For instance, one school district in Ohio had not advertised a program for English learners in Spanish, the most common language spoken by English learners and their parents in the area.

Many of the complaints centered around whether English learners with disabilities were being properly identified and receiving the services to which they are legally entitled, Lhamon said.

Both districts with rapidly growing populations of English learners and districts with long-established programs for students learning English were the subject of complaints.

The guidelines include information about how districts should identify and assess English learners and about what kinds of language assistance those students need. It details how states and districts should avoid unnecessary segregation of English learners; ensure that all students have access to school programs and activities; remove students from programs for English learners when appropriate; ensure that English learners with special needs are identified and receive services; and provide information about programs to parents whose English proficiency is limited.

The Department of Education also released a tool kit with information about identifying English learners. Lhamon said this the first of several resource guides for working with English learners the department will release.

In Denver, the guidelines won’t prompt much change: The district’s services for English learners are already overseen by the Department of Justice and guided by a binding legal settlement, which department officials said was entirely in accordance with the new guidelines.

Still, schools superintendent Tom Boasberg said in a press release that the guidance clarifies and synthesizes federal requirements. “More than 40 percent of our students in Denver Public Schools are English language learners, and our community’s future depends in large measure on our success in providing them with the education they deserve.”

Lhamon said that the department did not plan to release recommendations about which curriculum districts should use to work with their English learners. “It’s important for districts to be able to select the programs they want,” she said.

Denver school officials said late last year that they were struggling to find curricular materials that were appropriate for English learners and aligned to the Common Core.

The guideline against segregating learners also does not contradict DPS’s practice of offering some classes for students that are conducted entirely in Spanish for native Spanish speakers, Lhamon said. “It can be appropriate for English learners to receive some separate instruction during school day. But districts need to carry it out in the least segregated manner.”