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Department of Justice investigating California’s services for English learner students

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The U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division is looking into whether California is adequately overseeing the education of 1.4 million students in the state who are still learning English, according to court records.

The investigation began after civil rights lawyers filed a lawsuit in April 2013 alleging California was failing to provide specialized instruction for 20,000 students whose first language wasn’t English.

Plaintiff’s lawyers said thousands of students - including some who told their stories at a press conference - were left in classrooms without any instruction because school officials didn’t act to provide specialized lessons. They accuse the state of depriving students of their constitutional right to an adequate education.

Less than a month later, on May 3, 2013, DOJ official Anurima Bhargava wrote a pointed letter to State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson and Mike Kirst, the president of the California Board of Education.

He noted that several years of data compiled by California’s Department of Education showed thousands of English learner students weren’t receiving special services, as required by federal law.

“These data strongly suggest that the State’s guidance and monitoring have not effectively addressed pervasive school district non-compliance with the EEOA and Title VI,” Bhargava wrote. “These data also suggest that districts openly report their non-compliance to the State each year because they believe the State has implicitly condoned it.”

The letter asked California officials what they’d done to provide services to the 20,000 students the ACLU alleged had been deprived of services.

Asked about the letter, Kirst replied in an email: “I cannot comment on an ongoing investigation.”

The letter is one of three between federal and state officials contained in court filings in the ACLU’s 2013 lawsuit.

“Your letter raises very serious allegations about whether the state is meeting its federal obligations to ensure that English Learner (EL) students are receiving services at the district level,” Richard Zeiger, California's Chief Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction, wrote in a response letter dated July 1, 2013.

In a third letter, sent to lawyers for the State Superintendent of Public Instruction January 13, 2014, DOJ officials told California officials that their response didn’t allay concerns that State officials were doing enough to provide services to all English Learner students. Federal officials made 14 requests for information and details about compliance including any "formal guidance" they provided school districts regarding their obligations to provide services to English learners.

There were 1.4 million students in California schools categorized as “English learners” in the 2013-2014 school year, about a quarter of the state’s 6.6 million public school students.

It is unclear from court records whether California and Department of Justice officials corresponded after the January letter.

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