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20,000 Students Sue Calif. Over English Instruction

Some 20,000 students are suing the state of California and its education workers for failing to provide adequate instruction to non-native English speakers.

By its own records, the state isn't offering English instruction to nearly 20,000 students, causing children to be held back a grade or live with low proficiency scores due to the language barrier, reports The Christian Science Monitor.

Under state and federal laws, schools are required to teach non-English speakers the language -- but how to teach it is another matter.

English Language Learners and the Law

The Bilingual Education Act (BEA) established federal policy for bilingual education to English Language Learners (ELLs). The BEA requires the federal government to provide financial assistance for innovative bilingual programs.

California already had similar laws in place, but passed Proposition 227 in 1998 which transitions students from immersion classes to mainstream classes.

As a result, students who are still learning English have the right, under both state and federal law, to transitional bilingual instruction or an alternative program designed to help them learn English. The goal is clear: access to bilingual programs for children of limited means.

But how to provide it is a separate issue. As an ACLU attorney told the Los Angeles Times, part of the problem is that some districts don't know how to help the students.

Problems With ELL Instruction

Under the BEA, kids have to stay in a program until they can read, write, and understand English. But there's no specific program required for ELL instruction. Some common ELL programs include:

  • English as a Second Language (ESL),
  • Transitional bilingual education, and
  • Dual-language immersion.

This is a problem because under current law, there's no clear standard for how to teach the language. The Improving America's Schools Act and No Child Left Behind are also less focused on the process than results. In fact, No Child Left Behind conditions school funding on results.

The end result is a broken system, the ACLU argues.

According to the ACLU's lawsuit on behalf of the 20,000 students, some California school districts just ignore ELL students. In one case, a Northern California district allegedly used English learners' state and federal funds to buy computer monitors and cameras.

In other cases, parents aren't interested in their kids learning English. But even if parents opt out of specialized programs for their children, the law still requires school districts to help students until they're no longer categorized as "English learners," an ACLU lawyer said.

Regardless of how the ACLU lawsuit is resolved, the case reminds us that facilities and textbooks aren't enough -- especially when students who don't understand English are effectively foreclosed from any meaningful education.

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