New Federal Guidance Issued on School Obligations for English Language Learners


New guidance from the U.S. Department of Education (ED) and Department of Justice (DOJ) released jointly January 8 reminds states, school districts, and schools of their obligations under federal law to ensure that English language learner (ELL) students have equal access to a high-quality education and the opportunity to achieve their full academic potential.

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.
  • Provide limited English proficient parents with information about school programs, services, and activities in a language they understand.

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.

About 9 percent of public school students—nearly 5 million—are English learners. More than 40 states have seen an increase in the percentage of ELL students between 2002 and 2011. Three out of every four public schools enroll ELL students.

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.

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