Groups Sue, Say State Comes Up Short In Bilingual Education

Brandi Grissom, El Paso Times, July 24, 2006

Austin—Latino advocacy groups are taking Texas to court, claiming the state’s education agency is failing to enforce a judge’s 35-year-old order to make sure hundreds of thousands of Spanish-speaking students have the same educational opportunities as their peers.

The League of United Latin American Citizens and the American GI Forum filed a motion earlier this year arguing that thousands of Spanish-speaking students are failing standardized tests and dropping out of school because they do not have a working knowledge of English.

The groups want a judge to order the Texas Education Agency to more closely observe and evaluate bilingual programs to make sure students with limited English skills get the same quality education and opportunities as students who speak the language fluently.

“We’ve seen over the years a de-emphasis on quality bilingual education programs,” said Luis Figueroa, an attorney with the Mexican-American Legal and Educational Fund, which is representing LULAC and the GI Forum in the case.

Representatives from the Texas Education Agency would not discuss its bilingual education policies, citing the ongoing litigation, and deferred comment to the Texas Attorney General, who is representing the state in the lawsuit.

A spokesman for the attorney general would not comment on the litigation. The first hearing in the re-opened case was scheduled for this month, but it has been postponed, and attorneys are waiting for a new court date.

LULAC and the GI Forum are continuing a 1971 lawsuit in which the court ruled Texas was not adequately educating students who could not speak English and ordered TEA to implement and oversee bilingual programs.

Since then, the groups say in their motion, TEA’s oversight has degraded to virtual nonexistence.

“We think bilingual education works,” Figueroa said. “What we’re saying is the state isn’t fulfilling its obligation.”

In the motion, LULAC and the GI Forum assert that one problem is that some school districts do not classify enough students with limited English proficiency and do not take enough steps to make sure students who do struggle with English get enrolled in bilingual programs.

The state requires school districts to offer bilingual programs if evaluations show that 20 or more students in any grade level have limited English proficiency.

During the 2005-2006 school year, TEA data indicates 711,737 of Texas’ 4.5 million public school students, about 16 percent, were classified as having limited English proficiency.

The most recent information available from the TEA shows that during the 2004-05 school year about 30 percent of students in El Paso County’s nine school districts, 51,091 of the 168,456 enrolled, had limited English skills.

Statewide, about 35 percent of 1.9 million Latino students are classified as having limited English proficiency.

That ratio is “extremely low” in some districts with heavy Latino populations, the motion states, adding that TEA does not monitor how schools evaluate students’ language skills.

In El Paso County, about 88 percent of students are Latino, according to TEA data. The data does not indicate how many of those students are considered limited in English.

When a school does determine a student has limited English proficiency, parents can decline to enroll their children in bilingual programs.

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TEA data shows that statewide 80 percent to 90 percent of seventh-, eighth-, ninth—and tenth-graders with limited English skills failed the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test in the 2004-2005 school year.

Locally, about 80 percent ofseventh—and eighth-grade students with limited English failed the TAKS that same year. More than 90 percent of ninth—and tenth-graders with limited English failed.

Dropout rates calculated by the TEA show that though just 1.9 percent of Anglo students left school in 2004, about 16 percent of students with limited English gave up on classes.

In El Paso County, 3.4 percent of Anglo students dropped out, compared with 11.1 percent of students with limited English.

Ana Soto teaches math and science in a dual-language classroom at Ernesto Serna School. In her class with 26 students, half the instruction is given in English and half in Spanish.

Soto said more state oversight and funding would help students whose first language is not English, especially students in upper-grade levels who have not had bilingual courses in lower grades.

Often, she said, those students are taking courses taught in English before they are fluent enough to think analytically in their new language.

“We’ve got to give them the time it takes to develop the language,” Soto said.

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The groups are not asking the state to put more money into bilingual programs, although Figueroa said the state has under-funded them for years.

Instead, LULAC and the GI Forum want the court to declare the current evaluation process inadequate and force TEA to design, staff and implement on-site monitoring for all programs that serve students with limited English proficiency.

Figueroa said Texas must keep up its end of the bargain required under the original lawsuit filed in the 1970s. As the state’s demography continues to shift increasingly toward the Latino population, Figueroa said it is more important than ever that those students are well-educated.

“Now is a critical time period to again make the state honor that initial decision,” he said.

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