Rhode Island Legal Services and the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island are suing the state Department of Education over a policy in Providence they say shortchanges the rights of English language learners.
PROVIDENCE — Rhode Island Legal Services and the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island are suing the state Department of Education over a policy in Providence they say shortchanges the rights of English language learners.
The appeal seeks to overturn a ruling by state education Commissioner Ken Wagner, who upheld the Providence school department’s method of providing services to English language learners. The ACLU and Legal Services claim that the Rhode Island Department of Education, in its ruling, provides less support to those students than federal law requires.
Long concerned about the inadequate educational services provided to English learners, the two organizations filed an administrative complaint with the Department of Education in 2016 on behalf of parents in Providence whose children were receiving little or no instruction by a certified English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher.
Providence claimed that these children were being adequately served by general and special teachers because they consulted with ESL teachers as infrequently as once every two months. This “consultation” model, the ACLU said, required no additional training for the regular education teachers. Its approval by RIDE is the basis of the ACLU appeal.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Justice, which reviewed Providence’s English learner instruction last year, found that consultation model didn’t meet federal law.
In an agreement between the Department of Justice and Providence in August, the school department agreed to stop using that model because it was “educationally unsound.” The schools also agreed to make sure that future instruction be provided by teachers trained in English as a Second Language.
But the ACLU said the agreement is only in force for a limited period, and said it did not include any provisions for compensatory services.
Despite those findings, Wagner last month approved a RIDE hearing officer’s decision. In an appeal filed this week with the Council on Elementary and Secondary Education, the ACLU and Legal Services claim that RIDE’s decision is contrary to state law and regulations, as well as the federal laws the state regulations are designed to implement.
In his ruling, the RIDE hearing officer called the Justice agreement irrelevant to interpreting Rhode Island law.
The appeal argues that children with disabilities who are in a self-contained setting “receive absolutely no direct services from an ESL teacher, regardless of whether they know any English at all,” while “general education children within the two lowest levels of English language proficiency” receive at least some direct ESL teacher instruction every day.
The brief calls on the council, which oversees RIDE, to reverse Wagner’s ruling, find that Providence’s plan is unlawful, and order compensatory services to under-served English learners.
Meg Geoghegan, a spokesperson for the education department, said the settlement with the Department of Justice occurred after the hearing record was closed, and the hearing officer declined to add that information to the record.
“It is important to distinguish between the hearing decision — based on the evidence introduced into the record — and the Department of Justice report, which was based on extensive Providence site visits and interviews,” she wrote.
Rhode Island Legal Services lawyer Veronika Kot said English learners in Rhode Island “are lagging academically, and national studies find that Latino children in Rhode Island rank second-to-last in the country on indicators of likely success, which include academic achievement. It is critical, therefore, that their rights under both state and federal laws be energetically enforced by the state agency charged with doing so, so they can have equal access to education.”