New federal guidelines highlight civil rights of English language learners

by Emma Brown  |  published on January 8, 2015

The Obama administration released guidelines Wednesday that highlight the civil rights of students learning English as a second language, who under federal law are guaranteed targeted help and a high-quality public education.

There are about 5 million English-language learners in the United States, or about 9 percent of all public school students, and the number is increasing. So, too, are the number of civil rights complaints concerning English learners, according to the Education Department, while national test scores and other data show a persistent achievement gap between native English speakers and those learning English as a second language.

“It is crucial to the future of our nation that these students, and all students, have equal access to a high-quality education and the opportunity to achieve their full academic potential,” administration officials wrote in an open letter to the nation’s educators. The letter was signed by Catherine E. Lhamon, the Education Department’s assistant secretary for civil rights, and Vanita Gupta, acting assistant attorney general for civil rights in the Justice Department.

The letter comes amid public debate about schools’ responsibility to serve the thousands of unaccompanied and undocumented minors who have streamed across the border in the past year. It also follows President Obama’s executive action to allow nearly 5 million undocumented immigrants to remain in the United States. Some English learners are immigrants; many others are the children of immigrants.

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