Students, Parents, and Teachers Sue the State of California For Abandoning Thousands of California’s English Learner Schoolchildren

students raise hands-cropLos Angeles—California has abandoned thousands of schoolchildren seeking to learn English despite legal obligations and earmarked funding for this instruction, charged the ACLU of California and allies in a civil rights lawsuit. The suit seeks to compel the state to take action in response to widespread admissions by school districts, published on the California Department of Education website, that they are failing to provide any English Learner services to eligible schoolchildren.

[Lea el artículo, en español, aquí.]

The suit is the first of its kind in California, where one out of every four public schoolchildren are English Learners.  Co-counsel include the Asian Pacific American Legal Center (APALC) and the law firm of Latham & Watkins LLP.

Addressing the learning needs of English Learner students is critical to the productivity and long term economic health of our state, as well as to each child’s ability to fulfill his or her potential as an individual and participant in our democracy.  The California Constitution and numerous federal and state laws mandate the delivery of effective English language instruction to English Learner students.  While there need be no single approach to delivery of English Learner services, eligible schoolchildren must receive specialized instruction or intervention that gives them the opportunity to succeed academically.

Each year, the state distributes state Economic Impact Aid and federal Title III funds for English Learner services to districts that report that they are not providing the language instructional services required by law to all eligible students. The state has taken hundreds of millions of dollars from the federal government and represents that, in fact, every eligible student receives English Learner services.  However, a review of the facts, including districts’ own public reporting, shows that thousands of children are not receiving any services.

“Our teachers already face the incredibly challenging task of teaching our young people,” said Jessica Price, staff attorney of the ACLU of Southern California. “When English Learning instruction is so critical to school success, why is the State actively enabling a system that allows school districts to receive funds for vital services they admit to not providing in violation of the law?”

The lawsuit follows the January 23, 2013 release of a report by the ACLU of California and APALC documenting that 251 California school districts reported that they failed to provide legally mandated instruction to more than 20,000 English Learner students.

“When districts publicly report that they are receiving funds for English Learner instruction but are providing no services, the state of California must follow up,” said Homayra Yusufi, policy advocate for the San Diego ACLU.

“English Learners have valuable and diverse contributions to make in their classrooms and communities,” said Nicole Ochi, staff attorney for APALC. “Yet many of them are unable to do so because the State fails to ensure that English Learner students are provided the tools necessary to learn English and access the full curriculum.”

In the 2010-2011 school year, the Grossmont Union High School District reported to the California Department of Education that 1,389 of 3,368 English Learner students received no English language instructional services—nearly half of all English Learner students in the district. One of the plaintiffs is “S.Z,” who is a senior at a school within the Grossmont district. The district identified S.Z. as an English Learner student since he enrolled in ninth grade. He has received no English language instructional services since the second quarter of the eleventh grade.

The ACLU of California, APALC, and Latham & Watkins LLP attempted to solve this issue without litigation.  In January 2013, they sent a letter to the Superintendent of Public Instruction and the State Board of Education advising them that the State’s inaction in the face of this crisis violated its duties under federal and state law. After more than three months, state education officials have chosen not to commit to any concrete plan of action to ensure that English Learner students receive legally mandated services, prompting today’s suit.

“There is a clear problem when 251 school districts in our state report that they are not providing academic services to some, or all, English Learners,” said Alex Padilla, California state senator.  “It is difficult to fathom how this is possible when these same districts are sitting on hundreds of millions of dollars meant to help English Learners. It should not take a lawsuit to compel the State and our school districts to comply with state law.  We have a legal and moral responsibility to educate California’s 1.5 million English Learners.”  On-site monitoring reveals that some districts have used these specially allocated funds to hire a janitor, clerical workers, and even laptops for students.

The lawsuit, which names the State of California, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, the State Board of Education, and the California Department of Education as defendants, is D.J. v. State of California.

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