Equal opportunity to public education is vital for all students including those whose first language is not English. Recently the Department of Justice and the Department of Education introduced a ‘English Learner Tool Kit.’ The Tool Kit offers guidance to educators and state agencies to be compliant with Federal law concerning English learner students and to prevent national origin discrimination. Ten chapters in length, the guidance packet identifies common issues, best practice recommendations, suggestions in the communication with limited English parents, and provides introductory translations in ten languages. The Took Kit is a vital resource for educators, state agencies, parents, and stakeholders.
Three key laws often inform educational access and opportunity of English learner students, immigrant students, and nationality in education: the Equal Educational Opportunity Act (EEOA) of 1974, Lau v. Nichols, and Plyler v. Doe. The Equal Educational Opportunity Act of 1974, among many other prohibitions, forbids states from denying equal educational opportunity on the basis of nationality by failing to omit language barriers which prevents students from equal participation in English based courses and instruction. Furthermore, under the Act school districts are prohibited from segregating students based upon national origin.
Relatedly, decided before the passage of the EEOA, the landmark Supreme Court of the United States case Lau v. Nichols established what is known as the ‘Lau Remedies.’ The Court applied Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in holding that school districts must take ‘affirmative steps’ to rectify language barriers, where an inability to understand English may exclude a student from ‘effective’ educational participation. Moreover, grouping or tracking must not amount to segregation and should be narrowly tailored to expediently meet the language needs of students, nor must it be permanent or educational quality subpar in nature. Importantly, the Court also noted that because language and national origin are so substantially entwined, that failure to provide accommodations for English learner students is tantamount to national origin discrimination.
Opportunity to fully participate in educational instruction is also important. However, equally important is the ability to enroll into public school at the outset. In the early 1980s, the Supreme Court of the United States held in Plyler v. Doe, that state and municipal prohibitions denying enrollment in public school based on citizenship and immigration status violate the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. In Plyler, as the Court has stated time and again, states do not hold a legitimate interest in the unilateral enforcement of federal immigration laws.
Although the previously discussed statutes and cases are over thirty old, they currently remain seminal to the equal education of all children. Just recently, the Department of Education and Department of Justice reached a settlement agreement with the Jefferson Parish School System in Louisiana in order to ensure that all students are permitted to enroll into school regardless of their national origin or immigration status. The agreement was reached after a federal government investigation and complaint was filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center representing immigrant families who were required to provide social security numbers of their children during school enrollment and were not provided with communication in their native language. Two separate agreements have been reached with the both the Center and the federal government. Implementation of the agreements by the Parish will continue to be monitored. Understanding that the corridors of Justice must be open to all, the Immigration, Civil Rights, and Public Policy Division of Castrogiovanni Jones Hasseltine & Ohlmeyer, addresses sociopolitcal conditions in order to advocate for more just law and policy. For more information concerning the rights of English language learners and national origin discrimination or to file a complaint, visit the Department of Education Office for Civil Rights or the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division Educational Opportunities Section.
Author: Jenipher R. Jones, Esq
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