The state Education Department has ignored its obligation to make sure that thousands of students learning English receive adequate and legally required assistance, according to a lawsuit filed Wednesday in Los Angeles County Superior Court.
State officials said they had not studied the lawsuit, but insisted they are meeting their legal obligations.
The suit, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and others, focuses on an estimated 20,000 students who are receiving no help or inadequate services as they work to learn English and keep up academically at the same time.
"It is a blatant violation of the law not to provide these students the most basic and essential component of their education — language to access their classes," said Jessica Price, staff attorney with the ACLU Foundation of Southern California.
Advocates based their conclusions on information that school districts report to the state Department of Education. About 250 districts acknowledge they are providing no services or inappropriate language help to these students, and yet "the state of California does absolutely nothing in response," Price said.
The suit includes narratives, such as that of F.S., a student in the Compton Unified School District who was allegedly denied language help in third grade, failed most of his classes, and ultimately was retained. The next year, the same student, in the same school system, received help and "finally showed progress in his classes," according to advocates. Compton Unified is not a target of the litigation.
The suit was filed on behalf of six students and their guardians. They are remaining anonymous out of concern over possible retaliation from their local school systems, attorneys said. Also suing is Walt Dunlop, a former Oxnard Union High School District teacher who has worked with English learners and criticized his district's programs for them.
Although federal and state funds are set aside to help English learners, the best approach has long been a topic of contention. Programs that offer the teaching of academic subjects in a foreign language have become more rare. It's more common for English-speaking teachers to receive training in how to make their lessons more accessible. And students can also receive support in classes taught in English.
The ACLU's Mark Rosenbaum said it was outrageous that so many students received no help at all.
A state official insisted California was not shirking its obligations. The education department is "determined to ensure that all English-learner students receive appropriate instruction and services," said Chief Deputy Supt. of Public Instruction Richard Zeiger.
"When questions arose," he added, the department "asked local educational agencies to provide additional information regarding the services they are required to provide."
Zeiger also urged parents with specific issues to contact the department though its established complaint process.
Earlier this year, state officials said 98% of the state's 1.4 million English learners were receiving services.
In an earlier round of litigation, advocates targeted Dinuba Unified as well as the state. Dinuba settled the suit, setting the stage for the current legal action targeting the state.
Also participating in the suit are the Asian Pacific American Legal Center and the law firm of Latham & Watkins.