Original article appeared in SF GATE.
By Bob Egelko
State education officials are illegally refusing to disclose the number of students in individual public schools who have been struggling for at least six years to learn English, information that is important to parents seeking the best English programs for their children, civil rights groups charged in a lawsuit Monday.
These “long-term” English learners make up a majority of the 1.2 million California schoolchildren classified as “English learners,” those who are unable to perform ordinary classroom work in English. Students who are classified as long-term English learners have been in that category for six years or more and have failed to make progress for at least two years on a state test of English speaking, listening, reading and writing.
A state law passed in 2012 requires the California Department of Education to compile the number of long-term English learners in each school and district. But when the civil rights groups sought records for a number of schools in February, the department refused to release them and said disclosure may violate the privacy of students and their families, the groups said in the lawsuit.
The suit, filed in Sacramento County Superior Court, seeks the information for all school districts in San Mateo County and three in Southern California, including the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second-largest.
“These data are vital to parents deciding which English programs are right for their children,” said Gabriella Barbosa of Public Counsel in Los Angeles, one of the organizations filing suit. “We share these data with parent leaders to help them monitor district programs. Without it, parents and community members are unable to evaluate which English programs work and which ones are failing.”
The Department of Education hasn’t reviewed the suit yet and had no comment, said Tina Jung, spokeswoman for state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson.
The suit said long-term English learners typically enter the system in elementary school and often pick up conversational skills in English much faster than they learn academic language skills.
The reasons, the suit said, include “the low quality of the state’s language-development program,” the schools’ frequent practice of providing grade-school-level material to English learners in high school, and the students’ “social and linguistic isolation” from students who speak better English.
The need for parental involvement has increased, the suit said, because new state laws have increased funding to school districts with larger numbers of English learners and give the districts more control over those funds, while requiring schools to involve parents, students and the community in their decisions.
Each district now has a committee of parents of English learners to oversee instructional programs and see which ones are working, said Travis Silva of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights in San Francisco.
He said the data sought from the department would help civil rights groups decide where to focus their efforts, and help parents decide where to send their children.