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Language Access and Public Schools: It's the Law!

Language Access and Public Schools: It’s the Law!

A lot happens in school – parent meetings, classroom instruction, exams, notes home, announcements, etc.

But what if you are a recent immigrant or refugee and do not speak English? What if your parents also speak a non-English language?  How can students learn and how can parents understand what is expected of them and their children?

Language Assistance in Schools

Language access and legally compliant language assistance play major roles in public education. They are also required by many federal laws. Today, language assistance concerns are getting noticed more and more in public school districts across the United States.

Take the Carthage School District in Missouri, for example, where changing demographics and new Spanish-speaking residents have been noticed by the local public schools.

According to a 2018 article in the Joplin Globe:

“The Carthage School District, administrators insist, is unique in one regard.

With 25 percent of its students classified as English-language learners [ELL], and a rising student population driven by a steady flow of Spanish-speaking immigrants, the district is hard-pressed to contend with a basic fact about the Missouri education system: All state tests required for graduation are in English.

… Jana Sawyer, district coordinator of the English-language learners program, gave the Carthage Board of Education a snapshot of how the district is faring with those students.

Last year, the graduation rate for ELL students was 69 percent, compared with 90 percent of students who graduated overall. Those numbers have gotten worse in recent years, reflecting the continuing arrival of immigrants from Central and South America, Sawyer said. At the high school alone, 13 members of the senior class recently arrived in the country, some with few English skills, little classroom experience and no educational records.

Carthage administrators and parents say the district is doing its best with a challenging situation, training teachers to tailor their lessons to English learners and building one of the few dual-language programs in the state.”

Language Access in Schools According to the Law

In 2014 and 2015, the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education released several important guidance documents and advisory letters about language assistance and national origin discrimination in public schools. The departments also explained about the laws that protect against language-based and national origin discrimination in our public schools and also require appropriate language assistance for limited English proficient students, parents, and guardians.

According to the Justice Department:

“Forty years ago, the Supreme Court of the United States determined that in order for public schools to comply with their legal obligations under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VI), they must take affirmative steps to ensure that students with limited English proficiency (LEP) can meaningfully participate in their educational programs and services. That same year, Congress enacted the Equal Educational Opportunities Act (EEOA), which confirmed that public schools and state educational agencies must act to overcome language barriers that impede equal participation by students in their instructional programs.

Schools must communicate information to limited English proficient parents in a language they can understand about any program, service, or activity that is called to the attention of parents who are proficient in English. This includes, but is not limited to, information related to:

  • registration and enrollment in school and school programs
  • grievance procedures and notices of nondiscrimination
  • language assistance programs
  • parent handbooks
  • report cards
  • gifted and talented programs
  • student discipline policies and procedures
  • magnet and charter schools
  • special education and related services
  • meetings to discuss special education
  • parent-teacher conferences
  • requests for parent permission for student participation in school activities
  • School districts should ensure that interpreters and translators have knowledge in both languages of any specialized terms or concepts to be used in the communication at issue, and are trained on the role of an interpreter and translator, the ethics of interpreting and translating, and the need to maintain confidentiality.
  • It is not sufficient for the staff merely to be bilingual. For example, a staff member who is bilingual may be able to communicate directly with limited English proficient parents in a different language, but may not be competent to interpret in and out of that language, or to translate documents.”

According to both departments, English learner (EL) students represent nine percent of all U.S. public school students. EL students are enrolled in nearly three out of every four public schools across the nation.  As the departments state, “Under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VI) and the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974 (EEOA), public schools must ensure that EL students can participate meaningfully and equally in educational programs.”

However, public school language assistance requirements go beyond Title VI and the EEOA. They also are part of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”), 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq.

For example, the IDEA requires “an initial evaluation of a student… and a written parental consent.” This consent requires that the parent “has been fully informed of all information relevant to the activity for which consent is sought, in his or her native language…” 34 Code of Federal Regulations §300.9(a) and (b).

The IDEA further mandates that the parent(s) of a student with a disability be invited to  Individualized Education Program (“IEP”) meetings about their children and afforded an opportunity to participate 20 U.S.C. § 1414 and 34 C.F.R. §§ 300.321, 327, 501(c).  The IDEA contains procedural safeguards designed, in part, to ensure “that families of such children have meaningful opportunities to participate in the education of their children at school and at home,” 20 U.S.C. § 1400(c)(5)(B), requiring public schools to ensure that the parent understands the proceedings of the IEP Team meeting, including arranging for an interpreter for parents with deafness or whose native language is other than English. 20 U.S.C. § 1400(c)(5)(B) and 34 C.F.R. § 300.322(e).

Final Thoughts

Federal law thus has significant requirements for public schools to provide language assistance to EL students and LEP families and their public school children. Most poignantly, these legal mandates are in place not only to prevent discrimination against non-English speaking students and their families, the laws are intended to ensure that all students receive equal access to educational opportunities and the equal chance for academic achievement, regardless of where they come from and what languages they speak at home.

As the Justice and Education Departments stated:

“EL students must have access to their grade-level curricula so that they can meet promotion and graduation requirements.  EL students are entitled to an equal opportunity to participate in all programs, including pre-kindergarten, magnet, gifted and talented, career and technical education, arts, and athletics programs; Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) courses; clubs; and honor societies.”

**Read some of  Bruce Adelson’s other blog posts to learn about more developments in language access law, and be sure to contact us if you’re interested in a consultation about your own organization’s compliance with federal language access law.

© Bruce L. Adelson 2018, special for Bromberg, All Rights Reserved The material herein is educational and informational only.  No legal advice is intended or conveyed.

Bruce L. Adelson, Esq, CEO of Federal Compliance Consulting LLC is nationally recognized for his compliance expertise concerning many federal laws.  Mr. Adelson is a former U.S Department of Justice Civil Rights Division Senior Trial Attorney.

Mr. Adelson teaches cultural and civil rights awareness at Georgetown University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C.



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