Know Your ELLs’ Rights: A Quick Federal Law Review

Our training for ESL/ELL specialization covers lots of ground. To make ourselves valuable resources for our students, we learn about linguistics, cultural connections, how to adapt assessments, and curriculum development. What we rarely learn about, though, are the laws behind ESL instruction—and that can be a problem, because a recent Associated Press investigation found that many districts throughout the nation are ignoring federal laws. Sadly, this hurts many students at the secondary level who may start to see dropping out as a more attractive option than dealing with an unwelcoming district, and because their parents may not speak English well enough to advocate for them this may become our responsibility.

There are some set laws about ELL/ESL programs we need to be familiar with to make a case for educating ELLs. Some of the most significant laws and other things you need to know are:

  1. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – Students cannot be discriminated against by skin color or national origin. This is the foundation for much of modern U.S. education, although how well it has been implemented in the modern education system is a matter for another debate. A 1970 memo from the Office for Civil Rights clearly spells out that school districts must take affirmative steps to make the instruction available to students with limited English proficiency, and that these measures must be reviewed to make sure they stay in compliance with the law.
  2. Lau v. Nichols – Students cannot be denied equal education or the right to participate in activities based on language. This 1974 Supreme Court Case makes it clear that equal education isn’t telling all students the same thing, it’s making sure all students have the same opportunities, even if they need extra language help to get it. And since students’ first language is often a part of their identity, discriminating against them on this basis is akin to racial discrimination.
  3. Plyler v. Doe – Students’ citizenship status doesn’t matter. Illegal immigration is always a hot issue, and it tends to get even hotter during election years, but for schools it simply shouldn’t be an issue. In 1982, the Supreme Court ruled that denying enrollment or funding to schools that accept children whose families weren’t “legally admitted” into this country is a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. So although many angry commentators may say horrible things every time this issue comes into the media, schools should be a safe place for all children, no matter where they were born.
  4. The Office of Civil Rights – You can make a complaint. Communities across the nation vary in how welcoming they are to recent immigrants, and since school boards and administrative roles are filled by people from the community, some may push agendas contrary to the law. If this happens, it may be time to file a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights with a clear description of what is going wrong.  You can find more information about the federal government’s guidance and requirements here to get the background you need to make a strong case for change.


About Nathan Hall

Nathan Hall
Nathan Hall, MA TESOL, MS Education, lives in Pottstown, PA with his wife and two daughters. He has been involved in ESL since he volunteered as a tutor in 2001, which inspired him to leave the field of journalism for education. He has since taught English language learners in a variety of settings ranging from community programs to colleges as well as in several different types of middle schools and high schools. He is currently an ELL specialist at Achievement House Cyber Charter School in Exton, PA.
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3 Responses to Know Your ELLs’ Rights: A Quick Federal Law Review

  1. Ayanna says:

    Hi David,

    I write a blog for TESOL dedicated to the civil rights of English learners Your questions are related to some of the topics I’ve written about. Thank you for posing these.

    Generally speaking, a portion of all taxpayer dollars, local, state and federal funds go towards a number of school related obligations and initiatives. This includes supporting students identified as English learners. Part of that responsibility is to support the students in learning English and having access to content area courses with appropriate support.

    All students, both native English speakers and those learning English as a new or additional language take English courses. As outlined in the blog post you replied to, the law is clear around nondiscriminatory practices. I hope residents will be able to have some transparent dialog around supporting new residents, especially those in K-12 schools.

  2. David Mapley says:

    Hi Nathan, I live in Norwalk CT, and recently the state announced itself as a sanctuary stare. As a result enrolments in ELL have surged, and now the residents who pay property taxes to support the public schooling are challenging the status quo. Who should pay for ELL – the local residents, or does the government fund it at federal or state level? Do the schools actually have to allocate resources to teach children English? I am from the UK and worked many years in Asia and Eastern Europe. The idea of local schools having to dedicate resources to teach children the local language would be deemed bizarre, and particularly since English is globally used.

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