Pictured above: Mark Rosenbaum of the ACLU announced possible legal action against the state of California for failing to offer English language learners equal opportunities.
Photo: Aurelia Ventura / La Opinión
One in four students in California is an English Language Learner (ELL), which amounts to 1.5 million students in the state’s K-12 schools. According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Southern California, more than 20,000 of them are not receiving the services they need to learn English.
The ACLU announced on Wednesday that it will file a lawsuit against the State Board of Education and State Superintendent Tom Torlakson in the next 30 days if the institution does not put an end to the problem, which affects mostly Latino students.
“Many parents and students don’t even know that they are classified as ELLs and what that means. Many of them have been in this category for years and finish high school without being proficient in the language,” said Jessica Pierce, an attorney with the ACLU of Southern California.
“The state knows about this situation. They have the data, the reports and they haven’t taken action to stop violating the state constitution and federal statutes that since 1974 require school districts to provide these students with the necessary resources,” said Mark Rosenbaum, chief legal counsel for the ACLU of Southern California.
"Just last year and the year before these school districts received more than $160 million for services to ELL students, and we don’t know where that money has gone, but it hasn’t gone to the students and their parents," said Rosenbaum.
More than a quarter of all school districts (251) have failed to provide such services. These include the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), where, according to the report “Opportunity Lost,” released by the California ACLU and the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, more than 4,100 ELL students are not receiving any services. In the Compton Unified School District, about 1,700 students are in this situation.
Mahogany Guillen, a Latina student who recently graduated from high school in Oxnard, explained the limitations experienced by students whose first language is not English.
"They put you in the same class as everyone else regardless of your English level, whether you speak a little or not at all. It’s very frustrating," said Guillen, who graduated without being proficient in English, which now prevents her from going to college.
"I have to go back and take some basic classes if I want to go to a community college," said Guillen. Not being able to master the language, she said, also closes the door to counseling services. "School counselors don’t want to talk to you in English because you aren’t proficient, or in Spanish because there aren’t enough bilingual staff," she said.
Rosenbaum explained that on Wednesday the ACLU sent a letter to Superintendent Torlakson and Mike Kirst, president of the State Board of Education, demanding that the state comply with its moral and constitutional obligation to provide all California students the same educational opportunity, regardless of their ethnic origin.
“We’ll give them 30 days. Otherwise we will proceed with the lawsuit in court,” the attorney said.
Meanwhile, Karen Cadiero-Kaplan, the director of the California Department of Education’s English Learner Support Division, said Wednesday through a written statement, "School districts…currently report that more than 98 percent of the state's 1.4 million English learners are receiving services."
Cadiero-Kaplan said the agency will review the complaint, but noted that an appeals court recently said that the Department of Education and the State Superintendent are in compliance with their responsibility to monitor ELLs.
In LAUSD, more than 161,000 students are classified as ELL, of which according to the report, only about 2 percent are not receiving adequate services. Of these, nearly 94 percent speak Spanish as their primary language. In California Spanish-speakers make up 85 percent of ELLs.
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