Civil rights authorities at the federal Education and Justice departments have called off their investigation of Arizona policies intended to ensure that teachers of English Language Learners (ELLs) can speak and write proper English themselves. Their new deal requires state officials to end their monitoring of English language skills of teachers in ELL classes. The federal agencies had notified state officials that they “were concerned” that the Arizona Department of Education’s on-site monitoring program might constitute a civil rights violation “by discriminating against Hispanics and others who are not native-English speakers who work or wish to work as public school teachers.”
State officials denied these allegations, insisting their program was a fair and evenly-applied effort. The program’s purpose is more than just sound education policy, it is federal law since 2002. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act requires that all teachers in any language instruction program for limited English proficient children have written and oral fluency in English and any other language used for instruction. It gives local school districts responsibility for assuring the teachers it hires are fluent.
The main impact of the deal to end the federal investigation seems to be the return of full responsibility for this requirement to local school officials. The Arizona Department of Education will now refocus its efforts toward ensuring that school districts have certified that their teachers are fluent in English. But its on-site evaluators will be instructed to drop “fluency” from their reporting.
The benefits of this outcome are unclear. The federal investigation centered around the interests of adults — whether or not public school teachers were being discriminated against when their English was deemed to be too heavily accented or ungrammatical. When considering the interests of the students themselves, the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) defended the investigation with the convoluted argument that should teachers with inadequate English skills be removed from classrooms, they could be replaced by “less or unqualified teachers,” which could adversely impact students’ meaningful participation in education programs.
For decades following the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1974 Lau v. Nichols decision, OCR negotiated hundreds of Lau education compliance agreements around the country. Virtually none of these massive and expensive agreements contained any timeframes or urgency for moving English learners to proficiency in English. Many of these plans required teachers to be fluent in Spanish, but not in English. In 2000, the OCR also sought to prevent Arizona school districts operating under such agreements from complying with an Arizona ballot initiative mandating English immersion, but it lacked authority to do so.
This latest case of federal activism demonstrates how protecting the job interests of adults can interfere with the educational opportunities for children. With a population whose success is as crucial as the nation’s English learners, the missed opportunities associated with inadequate English skills elevate the stakes even further.
Find Archived Articles: