Landmark civil rights ruling advances equal educational opportunity

Los Angeles — A state judge issued a ruling today affirming the state’s obligation to ensure that school districts deliver essential language instruction to thousands of underserved English learner (EL) students as state and federal law require. Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Chalfant validated charges filed by the ACLU of California, the Asian Americans Advancing Justice, Public Counsel and the law firm of Latham & Watkins LLP that California was failing to live up to its responsibility to ensure the delivery of meaningful educational support to thousands of the state’s ELs.
Parents, students and a former administrator brought the lawsuit, D.J. et al v. State of California et al, more than 18 months ago against the State of California, the State Board of Education, Superintendent Tom Torlakson and the California Department of Education for failing to ensure that students with a native language other than English receive specialized EL instructional services. Such instruction enables English learners to overcome language barriers so they can access core classes like math and science, and greatly increases the likelihood of testing at grade level by middle and high school. Those students who receive no services are among the lowest performing and are more likely to drop out of school.
“State educational officials had created a virtual caste system in which tens of thousands of children—nearly all of whom are U.S. citizens—were denied access to the bond of English language that unites us as Californians,” said Mark Rosenbaum, chief counsel of the ACLU Foundation of Southern California (ACLU SoCal). “Today marks an important civil rights leap forward for all students and all residents of the state.”
The civil rights groups’ legal challenge was bolstered by a brief filed by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division in mid-July stating that the state does not have discretion to ignore information provided by school districts that shows that they do not serve their EL students. The state has “the duty, the data, and the tools” to meet its responsibility under federal law, the brief noted, adding that “California’s (EL) students cannot afford to wait any longer.” The state, belying all the data, had argued in court filings that reports of the denial of English learner instruction are not reliable.
“Education is a basic civil right in California,” said Robert D. Crockett, a partner at Latham & Watkins. “Because of today’s ruling, each young student in California who has yet to master English as a spoken language will have an equal opportunity to understand the entire school curriculum.  This is a victory for parents and students.”
More than 1.4 million children—a quarter of all California’s public school students—are designated as English learners. They are more likely to be children of color and/or economically disadvantaged. More than 20,000 English learner students receive no English instruction of any kind. Targeted English learner instruction is essential to ensuring that students who are not proficient in English can succeed in mainstream classroom settings.
“More than 100,000 students of Asian origin are English learners, and Asian languages account for 80 percent of the top five home languages used by ELs,” said Nicole Ochi, staff attorney of Asian Americans Advancing Justice - Los Angeles. “Today’s ruling means that these students—and all English learners—must be given the necessary tools to succeed in the classroom. They will be better prepared and equipped to contribute to California as part of its skilled, educated workforce and economy.”
“California was a national leader in K-12 education, but we’ve fallen behind because we’re not preparing students for their futures. This case is about making sure the state delivers the fundamental building blocks of education, and there’s nothing more basic than language,” said Gabriella Barbosa, an equal justice works fellow at Public Counsel. “Failing to educate English learners means too many of our state’s residents will continue to lose ground when they should be participating fully in our economy and our civic life.”
In early 2013, the ACLU of California released a report detailing the widespread failure of more than 250 school districts across the state to provide adequate English instruction to English learner students, with more than 20,000 students identified as receiving no English language instructional services at all. In spite of that report and subsequent attempts urging State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson to address the deficit, the state still has not taken the necessary steps to ensure that districts deliver the services.
More information about D.J. v. State of California can be found here.
Links: Ruling Case timeline Complaint/Petition DOJ Statement of Interest