We’ll Say It in Plain English: 20,000 Kids Have Been Set Up to Fail

California schools are neglecting thousands of kids who struggle to speak English. If this does not change, the ACLU plans to sue the state.

English language learners in California are primarily Hispanic, but there is also a large population of Vietnamese and Hmong student who need services. (Photo: Washington Post/Getty Images)
Jenny Inglee is a Los Angeles-based journalist and the Education Editor at TakePart.

If a child doesn't understand English, they won't receive a meaningful education in America.

Nearly 40 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court made this point. Justice William O. Douglas said if this happens, kids "are certain to find their classroom experiences wholly incomprehensible."

Despite this statement, and the California Education Code protecting English language learners, there are more than 20,000 students in California who are receiving no English-language instruction services at all, says the ACLU.

The districts lacking in EL services include Los Angeles Unified, Fremont Union High in Santa Clara County, and San Diego’s Grossmont Union High.

Jessica Price, staff attorney at the ACLU, says "parents have been kept in the dark about this for years."

With a situation such as this, it's easy to blame the lack of services on budget cuts. This time, however, money isn't the primary problem.

Price says, "The districts are actually receiving funds to provide these services. They're receiving funds from the state in the form of Federal Impact Aid and from the federal government through Title III."

Some of the districts, she says, are putting the money allotted for English learners to use in other ways.

"I've seen reports to the state where one district decided to hire a maintenance worker and another used the funds to buy LCD screens and cameras for a classroom," she says. "Quite a few districts have EL reserves. They've been receiving the money and are not actually using it. They're just holding on to it."

Because of this, the ACLU of California, the Asian Pacific American Legal Center (APALC) and the law firm of Latham & Watkins LLP sent a letter to the state urging action. If education officials fail to address this within 30 days, they plan to sue the state.

In response to the demand letter from these groups, the California Department of Education's (CDE) English Learner Support Division Director, Dr. Karen Cadiero-Kaplan, issued a response. She said the state has made "dramatic progress in seeing that all English learners receive appropriate instruction and services." She also encourages parents concerned about their child's instruction to work at the local level with their school district.

Jessica Price agrees that progress has been made. However, she says, there are still tens of thousands of kids who aren't receiving any services.

Price also notes, in regards to Cadiero-Kaplan statement, that addressing the issue at the local level is not the answer. "A lot of the parents," she says, "do not even know their children are English learners, so their children are going year after year without getting the legally required notices and without getting the legally required translations."

The ACLU lawyer states firmly that this is "a statewide issue." Ultimately, she says, "the state is the entity that's responsible for children's education, so it can't just pass the buck and say, local districts educate these kids and if you don't, we're going to turn a blind eye to that and do nothing."

What the state will do with this information has yet to be determined, but Price is optimistic they'll fix this glaring problem and is hopeful they will do so before the 2013-2014 school year.

Jenny is the Education Editor at TakePart. She has been writing for TakePart since 2009 and previously worked in film and television development. She has taught English in Vietnam and tutors homeless children in Los Angeles. Email Jenny | @jennyinglee | TakePart.com

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