LOS ANGELES -- The American Civil Liberties Union of California on Wednesday charged that about a quarter of California school districts are violating state and federal laws by failing to provide English language instruction to all students who need it and demanded state education officials take action.
The ACLU, along with the Asian Pacific Legal Center, sent a letter to Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson and state school board members stating that it will file a lawsuit if English classes are not provided to some 20,000 students within 30 days.
"These 20,000 children receive no education services as to the delivery of English instruction," said Mark Rosenbaum, chief counsel for ACLU Southern California. "These (state) offices are not asleep at the wheel. They are driving these children into the ditch year after year after year."
State education officials are aware that students who need English instruction are not receiving it because districts report that number to the state, which posts them on the education department website, Rosenbaum said.
ACLU attorney Jessica Price said districts have offered various explanations, including insufficient funding for bilingual teachers.
Numbers range from Los Angeles Unified's 2 percent of English learners not receiving services to 85 percent in Wheatland Union in rural Northern California, according to the ACLU.
Fifteen districts reported that 30 percent of their English learners are not receiving appropriate instruction.
The state education department said that 98 percent of California's 1.4 million English learners receive services.
"Despite the enormous financial strains of recent years, California has made dramatic progress in seeing that all English learners receive appropriate instruction and services," said Karen Cadiero-Kaplan, director of the state English learner support division, in a statement.
Cadiero-Kaplan said that although she has not yet reviewed the ACLU's concerns, a recent appellate court decision found that the department was meeting its legal obligations related to on-site monitoring of English learners.
Rosenbaum said that the failure to provide services was affecting too many children's futures.
Some children receive "N/A" instead of grades on their report cards for "not applicable" and then get held back because they have no grades, while others graduate from high school but must take English-language courses in community college because their English is still not up to par, he said.
Districts also frequently fail to communicate with non-English speaking parents, he said.
"We have heard heartbreaking stories of parents ignored or humiliated in trying to secure education for their children," Rosenbaum said.
The ACLU and the Asian Pacific Legal Center additionally announced a public education campaign to urge parents to advocate for their children's rights and a hotline in six languages where parents can lodge complaints against districts.