California’s public schools are failing English learners

Students, parents and advocates march in Sacramento last January to make their voices heard on the new school funding formula designed to help English-language learners and low-income children.
Students, parents and advocates march in Sacramento last January to make their voices heard on the new school funding formula designed to help English-language learners and low-income children. Sacramento Bee file

Coming on the heels of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, we continue to hear calls to not just memorialize the civil rights movement in a holiday or movie, but to continue its legacy and mission. You don’t have to look further than our classrooms to see where injustice persists, particularly for students designated as English learners.

Earlier this month, the Obama administration released guidelines to safeguard the civil rights of students learning English as a second language. These rules reinforce the Supreme Court’s 40-year-old decision to provide targeted support for this group, which now numbers nearly 5 million nationally. Unfortunately, this explosion in the number of English learners in our public schools has also meant a corresponding rise in the number of civil rights complaints and investigations.

You might think California could serve as the model for supporting this important population. Nearly 45 percent of Californians speak a language other than English at home, and in our schools, nearly 1 in 4 students is learning English.

Sadly, the state doesn’t get a passing grade yet. Of the 60 public school agencies nationally under scrutiny by the Office for Civil Rights, 13 are in California. Test scores in our state still show a persistent achievement gap between native speakers and English learners. There is some indication students who transition out of English learner status often still struggle. Moreover, California’s misguided passage of Proposition 227 in 1998 has severely limited the use of bilingual education programs, which can lead to positive language and academic outcomes for students.

Having worked for years in East and South Los Angeles with students and families whose first language is not English, I have seen firsthand how these parents wrestle with how best to help their children academically. Many schools simply lack the trained staff and teachers necessary to engage these students and families. Further, roughly 85 percent of English learners live in low-income households, exacerbating the many obstacles they face.

Although the governor has made the right first step in adopting the Local Control Funding Formula, which provides more resources to districts with higher concentrations of English learners, more must be done. Money alone won’t move the achievement needle for this community.

Worse, the new funding formula can be read to encourage school districts to keep these students classified as English learners longer than necessary to receive more money. The state should remove this incentive by altering the formula to allow districts to continue to receive grants for students at least two years after they are reclassified.

A recent report published by our organization, the Education Trust-West, highlights districts including Selma, Calipatria, Los Alamitos and West Covina that are getting it right, posting better results for English learners than other districts with similar students. We need to learn, promote and expand the promising practices of these districts.

Mostly, however, this issue cries out for leadership. Last week, we joined a diverse coalition of organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union, the California Association of Bilingual Educators and the California Latino School Boards Association in asking Gov. Jerry Brown to appoint an English learners advocate to the state Board of Education. The governor has the opportunity to do right by the more than 1.4 million English learners by choosing someone with a track record of fighting for these students and who understands the families and communities the students come from.

We must take King’s “fierce urgency of now” message and apply it to improving the lives of our English learner students. The future of our social and economic success as a state depends on it.

Ryan J. Smith is executive director of The Education Trust-West, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Oakland.