A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge ruled Tuesday that California education officials are violating the constitutional rights of English learner students who are not getting specialized instruction in public schools.
"I'm ordering you to do something, anything," James Chalfant told lawyers representing the California Department of Education and other state officials during a one-hour hearing in the Stanley Mosk courthouse in downtown Los Angeles. “All must receive instructional services until reclassified.”
California's massive English learner program serves nearly 1.5 million students who don’t speak English at home - either foreign or U.S. born. Once students are found to know the English they need to understand standard instruction, they’re reclassified.
But in a lawsuit filed last year, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California presented state data from 251 school districts showing 20,000 English learner students had fallen through the cracks and were not getting specialized instruction. After a yearlong probe, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a statement last month siding with the ACLU.
Chalfant issued a tentative ruling Tuesday siding with the ACLU, then heard arguments from both sides during the afternoon hearing.
The ACLU’s lead counsel, Mark Rosenbaum, said data showed that thousands of students in school districts in Los Angeles, Inglewood, Compton, and Oxnard were put in classes where they didn’t understand instruction.
Lawyers representing the state said those numbers were unreliable.
“Not one single English learner has been brought to the table,” said Chara Crane, one of three lawyers defending California officials against the ACLU lawsuit.
Chalfant agreed that plaintiffs hadn’t shown compelling testimony from affected students.
Crane argued vigorously in the hearing that Chalfant’s ruling placed an undue burden on state officials by proscribing how they should follow the law.
Chalfant disagreed. He said he didn't care how the state ensured English learners were being taught - only that it did.
“You can’t have even one child who doesn’t get their instructional services,” he said.
Crane would not comment before or after the hearing. And state officials declined to say anything about the lawsuit leading up to the court hearing. A spokeswoman for the California Department of Education said a statement on the ruling would come on Wednesday.
“We’re thrilled,” Rosenbaum said after the hearing. “The court has said that all English learners are entitled to the same dignity, the same rights to learn, the same opportunity to learn as all children.”