An education controversy is brewing in Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) is planning to separate non-English speaking elementary students from other students in core classes. These changes are to be made soon, although it is almost three months into the school year. According to the Los Angeles Times, LAUSD Superintendant John Deasy believes that too many English Learners are learning “Spanglish” from their fellow students, rather than proper English.
The move by the LAUSD has rightfully angered parents, teachers, and principals. While the district’s experts say the plan is a sound idea, common sense and past experience suggest that it may not be. It opens the door to classifying Spanish-speaking pupils as “second-class students” simply because they are not proficient in English.
“Kids with little or no English are going to be segregated and told they’re not good enough for the mainstream,” one mother of a kindergartner told the L.A. Times. ”Kids learn from their peers, and they’re not going to be able to do that anymore.” Meanwhile, 17 principals from South L.A. schools have signed a letter to their local superintendant expressing their opposition to the policy. They pointed out that Spanish-speaking students will be uprooted from their friends and familiar teachers, and that segregating students would create a “chasm” between them. These concerns are all valid. It seems illogical that schools trying to teach students English will now be forced to separate these students from their English-speaking peers.
The LAUSD is the second-largest school district in the country. It is 73 percent Latino, and contains roughly 161,000 students learning to speak proficient English. LAUSD is legally obligated to do better by these English Learners, because in 2010 the federal Department of Education launched an investigation into whether they were violating the civil rights of English Learners by not properly educating them.
Under the terms of a 2011 settlement, the district agreed to implement changes, which resulted in the new “separate learning” policy. The unfairness here is that the LAUSD has made mistakes in how it educates English Learners – yet it is students who will be paying the price for the district’s errors.
The LAUSD English Learner Master Plan states that, “…a student’s education should not be determined by his or her race, ethnicity, linguistic background, or socio-economic status.” Unfortunately, in the past reality has diverged from these ideals. A 2009 University of Southern California study found that once students were designated as English Learners and put in special classes, they remained there for too long. Almost 30 percent of the LAUSD students put in the English Learner classes during primary grades were still in them by high school. Even more surprising: 70 percent of English Learners were U.S.-born.
Although LAUSD experts believe that their plan will enable students to learn English faster, the Christian Science Monitor interviewed education experts who were divided on the issue. The U.S. Department of Education suggests that the “best practice” for English Learners is peer learning between native- and non-English speakers. So the district would be wise to come up with teaching methods for English Learners that do not set them apart from other students.
This is a tall order. Consider that the LAUSD is bound by the Supreme Court decision in Lau v. Nichols (1974) to provide equal educational opportunities to all students, regardless of their language abilities. Or that the LAUSD plan may have a broader national impact on other districts as well. Given such complexities, the least the district could do is delay implementation of these changes until the start of the next school year, so as to minimize disruption to students.
The LAUSD should not return to the days of “separate but equal” in education. All students deserve an equal chance to learn and succeed – together.
NBC Latino contributor Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and member of the USA Today Board of Contributors.