LOS ANGELES (CN) – In a highly unusual 40-page ruling, Los Angeles Judge James Chalfant found that California has failed to provide adequate instruction to more than 20,000 students who are learning English as a second language.
The action was brought by the ACLU of California, Asian Americans Advancing Justice, Public Counsel and Latham & Watkins, representing three public school students, their mothers and a retired teacher.
They alleged violations of state and federal law by California, the State Board of Education, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson and the California Department of Education.
In court where rulings generally come in the form of minute orders and rulings of a couple paragraphs, the 40-page ruling is highly unusual. Issued earlier this week, the ruling by Judge Chalfant found that 250 school districts in the state had not delivered mandatory English language instruction to English learner students, even after the ACLU notified the state in early 2013.
One million four hundred thousand California students – one in four students enrolled in public schools – do not speak English or are learning English as second language. Almost all of them are U.S. citizens, according to the ACLU.
The plaintiffs claimed that for more than a decade California ignored school district language census data showing that English-learners do not receive the crucial instruction they need to succeed in school.
“Such instruction enables English learners to overcome language barriers so they can access core classes like math and science, and greatly increases the likelihood of testing at grade level by middle and high school,” the ACLU said in a statement. “Those students who receive no services are among the lowest performing and are more likely to drop out of school.”
Latham & Watkins attorney Robert Crockett said Tuesday: “Education is a basic civil right in California. Because of today’s ruling, each young student in California who has yet to master English as a spoken language will have an equal opportunity to understand the entire school curriculum. This is a victory for parents and students.”
Judge Chalfant granted the plaintiffs’ first amended petition, finding that California must respond to reports that students have not received the instructional services, and implement procedures to ensure they are delivered.
The judge said the state has a duty to make sure students are not being “denied equal educational opportunity.”
California argued that it had provided non-instructional English Learner services outside of the classroom, including after-school tutoring, English language programs, language counseling and other services not mentioned in the census reports.
But Chalfant said schools must do more.
“Non-instructional EL [English Learner] services may well qualify as EL services, but that only means that a district may supplement its ELD [English Language Development] or SDAIE [Specially Designated Academic Instruction in English] instruction with other EL services,” the judge wrote. “It may not eliminate instructional services until the EL student is reclassified. Moreover, a district’s provision of non-instructional services does not explain why the district would report that its EL students had received no instructional services. Respondents have the duty to find out why they did so.”
Chalfant found that the state’s only response after it received the language census data was to end the schools’ ability to report on English Learner services.
“Thus, the only meaningful action taken by respondents in response to district reports that EL students were not receiving services has been to modify the reporting mechanism so that it will be impossible for districts to make such admissions in the future,” the judge wrote.
The state cited the California Department of Education Federal Program Monitoring, which provides onsite and online evaluations of some school districts. But Judge Chalfant rejected the argument that the program supersedes the state’s obligation to make use of the language census data.
“Respondents are not free to ignore credible evidence about denials of equal educational opportunity simply because it was received through a channel never intended or designed to monitor district compliance,” the judge wrote.
The court concluded that California has a duty to take action under the Equal Education Opportunities Act of 1974 as well as the California Constitution.
“California was a national leader in K-12 education, but we’ve fallen behind because we’re not preparing students for their futures,” Public Counsel representative Gabriella Barbosa said. “This case is about making sure the state delivers the fundamental building blocks of education, and there’s nothing more basic than language. Failing to educate English learners means too many of our state’s residents will continue to lose ground when they should be participating fully in our economy and our civic life.”
A judgment should be issued by Sept. 16, the court said.
California was a world leader in public education until state voters restricted property tax hikes by passing Proposition 13 in 1978. Public school’s main source of local revenue comes from property taxes. California schools have struggled ever since.
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