Feds Remind Educators of ELL Obligations

The U.S. Departments of Education (ED) and Justice (DOJ) have released joint guidance reminding states, school districts, and schools of their obligations under federal law to ensure that English language learner (ELL) students have equal access to a high-quality education and the opportunity to achieve their full academic potential.

“Four decades ago, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Lau v. Nichols that all students deserve equal access to a high-quality education regardless of their language background or how well they know English,” said ED assistant secretary for civil rights Catherine E. Lhamon. “Today’s guidance not only reminds us of the court’s ruling, but also provides useful information for schools as they work to ensure equity for students and families with limited English proficiency.”

“Ensuring ELLs are supported in their education supports all of us. Today’s guidance — 40 years after passage of the landmark Equal Educational Opportunities Act — will help schools meet their legal obligations to ensure all students can succeed,” added acting assistant attorney general Vanita Gupta for the Civil Rights Division at DOJ.

Along with the guidance, the departments also released additional tools and resources to help schools:
• Multilingual factsheets about schools’ obligations under federal law to ensure that ELLs can participate meaningfully and equally in school.
• Multilingual factsheets about schools’ obligations under federal law to communicate information to limited English proficient (LEP) parents in a language they understand.
• A toolkit to help school districts identify ELLs — this is the first in a series of chapters to help state education agencies and school districts meet their obligations to ELLs.

This is the first time that a single piece of guidance has addressed the array of federal laws that govern schools’ obligations to English learners. The guidance recognizes the recent milestone 40th anniversaries of Lau v. Nichols and the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974 (EEOA), as well as the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act. The EEOA, similar to Lau, requires public schools to take appropriate action to help ELLs overcome language barriers and ensure their ability to participate equally in school.

The guidance explains schools’ obligations to:
• identify ELLs in a timely, valid, and reliable manner;
• offer all ELLs an educationally sound language assistance program;
• provide qualified staff and sufficient resources for instructing English learner students;
• ensure ELLs have equitable access to school programs and activities;
• avoid unnecessary segregation of ELLs from other students;
• monitor students’ progress in learning English and doing grade-level classwork;
• remedy any academic deficits ELLs incurred while in a language-assistance program;
• move students out of language assistance programs when they are proficient in English and monitor those students to ensure they were not prematurely removed;
• evaluate the effectiveness of English learner programs; and
• provide LEP parents with information about school programs, services, and activities in a language they understand.

Almost 5 million students in the U.S. are ELs — 9% of all public school students. From 2002 to 2011, the percentage of ELs in public schools increased in 40 states and the District of Columbia, and currently three out of every four public schools enroll English learner students.

The enforcement of the Equal Educational Opportunities Act and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to ensure that ELLs and LEP parents receive the services to which they are entitled is a top priority of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division.

“More than 40% 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. The guidance — which provides clarity and synthesizes ELL requirements — will be a useful resource as we continue to work to meet the needs of our English language learners,” commented Tom Boasberg, superintendent of Denver Public Schools, while San Francisco Unified School District superintendent Richard A. Carranza added, “Our preliminary review of this new guidance is that it reflects many of SFUSD’s current practices in support of English learners. It can’t be said enough, though, that in order to implement these and other comprehensive recommended best practices, districts require adequate and appropriate resources.”