Sunday, September 12, 2010

Feds: Arizona is violating the rights of its ELL students

* "Feds: Arizona is violating the rights of its ELL students" by Kerry Fehr-Snyder, The Arizona Republic (September 10, 2010)
* "Feds probing bias claims against Arizona's non-native English speaking teachers" by Kerry Fehr-Snyder, The Arizona Republic (September 8, 2010)

Feds: Arizona is violating the rights of its ELL students
by Kerry Fehr-Snyder
The Arizona Republic (September 10, 2010)

Two federal investigations have concluded that Arizona is violating the 1964 Civil Rights Act by shortchanging thousands of students whose first language is not English.

Unless remedied, the violations could lead to a loss of federal funding for education in Arizona.

One of the complaints alleges that the Arizona Department of Education has reclassified "many thousands" of children as proficient in English even though tests indicate they aren't. The U.S. Departments of Education and Justice concluded this deprives students of services they need to succeed.

The federal agencies found that Arizona violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which prevents discrimination by government agencies that receive federal funding. A loss of federal funding is a penalty for a violation of Title VI.

The federal officials proposed an agreement calling for Arizona to come up with a more effective way to test and reclassify students who need special instruction in English. The reclassifications come after students take tests to demonstrate English proficiency. The Arizona English Language Learner Assessment, or AZELLA, and the scoring of it "deem students proficient in English even when they are not proficient in each language domain," investigators found.

Once students are deemed proficient in English, educators "exit them from all ELL services," which violates their right to equal educational access.

Under the proposal, a temporary plan for English language learners would go into effect during the first semester of 2011-12 and a permanent plan during the second semester.

In the second complaint, the federal departments found that the state eliminated two questions from its home-language survey in 2009. The result was that students who are eligible for English-language services "are not being served because they are not being identified," investigators determined.

The findings come as federal agencies have launched a probe into whether Arizona's Education Department has discriminated against teachers who are not native English speakers.

Tom Horne, state superintendent of public instruction, said Thursday that the state Department of Education is working with federal investigators on the home-language survey.

"We're not going to change it back, but we're negotiating with them," he said. "We won't change it back, but we might make changes that will satisfy their needs and our needs."

Horne also said he is working with federal officials to evaluate the test Arizona educators used to classify ELL students as proficient in English.

Arizona buys the test from one of three companies that devise them, he said. He said the state is trying "to see what, if anything, needs to be done to satisfy what they need without compromising our principles."

Mary Lou Mobley, director of the U.S. Department of Education's Enforcement Office in Denver, which issued the findings, could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Molly Edwards, spokeswoman for the Arizona Attorney General's Office, which represents the state Education Department, declined to comment on any penalties the state could face.

Horne said the recent federal findings are part of ongoing attacks against Arizona ever since it passed Senate Bill 1070, a tough anti-illegal-immigration law.

"I do think this is a lot of nonsense we're dealing with over 1070" and a report by U.N. human-rights experts condemning the law, Horne said.

"This is why I'm running for attorney general, because we need someone to fight against these things," he said.

Meanwhile, Horne's office is defending itself against a long-running federal court case involving Arizona's approach to teaching English-language learners.

Tim Hogan, executive director for the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest, said the federal government's recent findings against Arizona regarding policies for ELL students bolsters his argument that the state isn't treating all students fairly as required by the Equal Educational Opportunities Act and Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

The home-language survey and the reclassification of ELL students have "artificially reduced the number of kids the state is counting as English-language learners," Hogan said.

The department's test also "allows students to move on even though they are not proficient in English," he added.

Feds probing bias claims against Arizona's non-native English speaking teachers
by Kerry Fehr-Snyder
The Arizona Republic (September 8, 2010)

The federal government is investigating whether Arizona has discriminated against teachers who are not native English speakers, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne confirmed Tuesday.

The state Department of Education for years has been monitoring English fluency of teachers who instruct English learners, but in April began instructing districts to fire teachers who weren't proficient in the language.

The probe was launched by the U.S. Department of Justice in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Education.

Hundreds of public-school teachers statewide instruct students who need special assistance in learning English.

Horne said federal officials disclosed details of the investigation in a letter sent to the Arizona Attorney General's Office. Federal officials could not immediately be reached for comment Tuesday.

Horne predicted that the federal agencies will conclude that the state has done nothing wrong.

"I'm sure they're going to find everything is fine," Horne said. "Teachers who are teaching English need to be fluent in English, and if kids can understand what they're saying, it's not an issue."

At issue is a push by the state Department of Education to get tough on teachers who lack basic English skills or whose grammar is considered so poor that it could detract from children's ability to learn.

Critics of the state's policy have said that it could eliminate talented teachers who have a positive influence on students struggling to learn English and that criticisms of teachers often are based on minor grammatical errors.

Audits by the agency in the past have uncovered examples of teachers who had spoken ungrammatically in class, including a teacher in Phoenix's Creighton Elementary District who asked her kids, "If you have problems, to who are you going to ask?" As part of that study, state school officials visited 32 districts and found such problems in nine.

Some believe the Arizona Department of Education singled out Latino teachers when it audited classes taught by bilingual teachers, criticizing them for their pronunciation, grammar and not speaking English well.

The federal investigation is the most recent of several aimed at Arizona, which has been in the spotlight for its anti-illegal-immigration law, Senate Bill 1070. Arizona also attracted attention for another law Gov. Jan Brewer signed in May, which banned an ethnic-studies program in Tucson. That prompted a report by U.N. human-rights experts condemning the measure.

In addition to suing Arizona over SB 1070, federal officials have named the state in a federal court case over its programs for English-language learners.

The federal government has brought a case against the Maricopa Community Colleges for asking legal immigrants to show their green cards before employment.

And federal civil-rights officials recently sent a letter to state education officials saying two state practices - identifying which students require English-learning services and for how long - violate federal law.

"It may be that the Senate Bill 1070 issue is causing some sort of campaign, I don't know, by the federal government against Arizona," Horne said.

Arizona is following the federal "No Child Left Behind" Act by requiring all children to be fluent in English, including oral and written communication skills, Horne said. That requires teachers to speak and write in English, he said.

"This is common sense," he said. "If you want to teach math, you need to know math. If you want to teach English, you need to be fluent in English."

Teachers are required to prove they are proficient in English before earning a teaching certificate.
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