California ‘Failing’ English Learners

A California judge has ruled that it is the state’s obligation to ensure that school disticts provide language instruction to English language learners (ELLs), and that so far California has failed nearly 20,000 underserved ELL students. Three students, their parents, and a retired administrator sued the State of California, the State Board of Education, the California Department of Education and Superintendent Tom Torlakson for neglecting to provide adequate instruction for students whose native language is not English in the case D.J. et al v. State of California. The ACLU of California, Public Counsel and Asian Americans Advancing Justice compiled California Department of Education data to argue that state education officials were negligent and that 251 school districts denied instruction to identified ELLs. Judge James Chalfant’s ruling points out that one in four California public school students is ELL identified.

While the judge ruled that two out of the three minor students who were petitioners in the case lacked standing because despite their lack of adequate English language instructions they are proficient in English and excelling in school, the court decided that the petitioners have public interest standing, explaining, “Public interest standing promotes the guarantee of citizens of the opportunity of ensuring that government does not impair or defeat a public right,” such as the right to language education for ELLs as protected under the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974 (EEOA). Furthermore, the court expressed awareness and concern for the families of the 20,000 ELL students who lack the resources and understanding of the legal system to file a similar suit for students who have suffered detrimental affects from lack of English language instruction: “ … a court may consider the burden that would otherwise fall on those who would have standing but are ill-prepared to seek review.” Ultimately, the court stated, “Respondents’ failure to comply with duties to EL students is a matter of public duty under the State Constitution and EEOA.”

“More than 100,000 students of Asian origin are English learners, and Asian languages account for 80 percent of the top five home languages used by ELLs,” remarked Nicole Ochi, staff attorney of Asian Americans Advancing Justice. “Today’s ruling means that these students—and all English learners—must be given the necessary tools to succeed in the classroom. They will be better prepared and equipped to contribute to California as part of its skilled, educated workforce and economy.”

“California was a national leader in K-12 education, but we’ve fallen behind because we’re not preparing students for their futures,” said equal justice works fellow at Public Counsel, Gabriella Barbosa. “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.”

The California Department of Education declined to comment on the case.

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