U.S. Departments of Education and Justice Release Joint Guidance to Ensure English Learner Students Have Equal Access to High-Quality Education

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U.S. Departments of Education and Justice Release Joint Guidance to Ensure English Learner Students Have Equal Access to High-Quality Education

January 7, 2015

The U.S. Departments of Education (ED) and Justice (DOJ) today released joint guidance reminding states, school districts and schools of their obligations under federal law to ensure that English learner 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."

"The diversity of this nation is one of its greatest attributes," said Acting Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta for the Civil Rights Division at DOJ. "Ensuring English learner students 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."

In addition to the guidance, the Departments also released additional tools and resources to help schools in serving English learner students and parents with limited English proficiency:

  • A fact sheet in English and in other languages about schools' obligations under federal law to ensure that English learner students can participate meaningfully and equally in school.
  • A fact sheet in English and in other languages about schools' obligations under federal law to communicate information to limited English proficient parents in a language they can understand.
  • A toolkit to help school districts identify English learner students, prepared by the Education Department's Office of English Language Acquisition. This is the first chapter in a series of chapters to help state education agencies and school districts meet their obligations to English learner students.

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 English learner students overcome language barriers and ensure their ability to participate equally in school.

The guidance explains schools' obligations to:

  • identify English learner students in a timely, valid and reliable manner;
  • offer all English learner students an educationally sound language assistance program;
  • provide qualified staff and sufficient resources for instructing English learner students;
  • ensure English learner students have equitable access to school programs and activities;
  • avoid unnecessary segregation of English learner students from other students;
  • monitor students' progress in learning English and doing grade-level classwork;
  • remedy any academic deficits English learner students 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 limited English proficient parents with information about school programs, services, and activities in a language they understand.

Almost 5 million students in the United States are English learners—about 9 percent of all public school students. From 2002 to 2011, the percentage of English learners 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 mission of the ED Office for Civil Rights (OCR) is to ensure equal access to education and promote educational excellence throughout the nation through the vigorous enforcement of civil rights. OCR is responsible for enforcing federal civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination by educational institutions on the basis of race, color, national origin, disability, sex and age, as well as the Boy Scouts of America Equal Access Act of 2001. Additional information about OCR is available here and additional resources, including previous guidance released on this topic, is available here.

The enforcement of the Equal Educational Opportunities Act and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to ensure that English learner students and limited English proficient parents receive the services to which they are entitled is a top priority of the DOJ's Civil Rights Division. Additional information on DOJ's efforts to provide equal educational opportunities to all students is available here.

Local superintendents weigh in on the guidance:

"It is critical that English learners are provided every opportunity to participate and excel in all of the educational opportunities offered by our schools. These guidelines clearly detail the type of support and services these students and their families need to ensure that they are able to receive the full benefits of public education. A quality educational program that adheres to these guidelines will ensure that English learners have the opportunity to become leaders and contributors in our communities." — Daniel P. King, Superintendent of Schools, Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD

"More than 40 percent 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." — Tom Boasberg, Superintendent of Denver Public Schools

"The San Francisco Unified School District has a longstanding history of ensuring equal access to English Learners, as well as honoring and preserving home language and culture. 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." — San Francisco Unified School District Superintendent Richard A. Carranza

"We are pleased the department is reinforcing the importance of offering a high-quality education to English learners by providing guidance to school districts throughout the country. As educators, we have the responsibility to ensure all students have the support they need to achieve their academic potential. At AISD, we are committed to helping English learners achieve academic and linguistic proficiency through educational programs that help prepare them to graduate ready for college, career and life in a multicultural society. If we want our children to achieve their highest potential, we must build on their strengths and honor their culture and language. Complementing English with another language creates a strong educational foundation, so students may become bilingual, bi-cultural and bi-literate. Our diversity is our strength." — Dr. Paul Cruz, Austin Independent School District interim superintendent