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Legal Mandates

Federal and state governments have enacted laws and regulations to protect the rights of English language learners and their families. Every public school in the United States is required to provide a free and equitable education to all school age children who live within the boundaries of the school district. Some federal laws are supported by funding to which all eligible schools districts are entitled (i.e., Title I and Title III of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001). However, regardless of funding, public school districts must comply with the laws and regulations to the best of their abilities.

Over the years, federal court decisions have recognized that school districts have a responsibility to take the steps necessary to provide equal educational opportunities for students who are English Learners (EL).

  1. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination based on race, color, or national origin in programs receiving federal financial assistance.
  2. Department of Health, Education and Welfare Memorandum (May 25, 1970) clarified the requirements in Title VI by stating that a district must take affirmative steps to rectify students' language deficiencies in order to open its instructional program to them.
  3. Lau v. Nichols (1974) directs school districts to take steps to help EL students overcome language barriers and to ensure that they can participate meaningfully in the districts' educational programs.
  4. The Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974 recognizes the rights of EL students and requires educational service providers to take appropriate action to help these students overcome language barriers. 
  5. In Castaneda v. Pickard (1981), the courts stated that schools must: base their program on educational theory recognized as sound or considered to be a legitimate experimental strategy, implement the program with resources and personnel necessary to put the theory into practice, and evaluate programs and make adjustments where necessary to ensure that adequate progress is being made.
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In its publication The Provision of an Equal Education Opportunity to Limited English Proficient Students (1992), the U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, provides guidelines to school districts regarding their legal obligation to language minority students. The following is a summary of the guidelines.

  1. School districts must identify all students whose Primary or Home Language is Other Than English (PHLOTE) by requiring the completion of a Home Language Survey and then assessing them to determine if they are limited English proficient and need special language assistance.

  2. School districts must then determine what kind of services are to be provided and must implement those services. Since a specific type of intervention program is not prescribed in Ohio, districts have the flexibility to decide on the educational approach that best meets the needs of their EL students as long as it is based on sound theory and best practice and provides effective instruction.

  3. Services must be provided by a certified teacher or properly trained staff and appropriate instructional materials used. Districts also have the responsibility to notify parents of an English Learner of school activities that are called to the attention of other parents. Such a notice, to be effective, may have to be in a language other than English.

  4. Once a school district implements a program for its English Learners, it must monitor student progress on a regular basis and take steps to modify the program if the students are not making reasonable progress.     

  5. Source: Ohio Department of Education / Lau Center. Guidelines for the Identification and Assessment of Limited English Proficient Students/English Language Learners/English Learners.