March 14, 2003

Illegal Regulations Keep Schools From Getting Federal Funds

Parents and Civil Rights Groups Ask Court to Stop State Board of Education Requirements

SAN FRANCISCO, CA — A group of civil, parent, and student right advocates announced today the filing of a law suit against the California Department of Education (CDE) for unlawfully implementing the federal grant program Reading First in a way that forecloses English Learners students enrolled in alternative programs from accessing these funds. The lawsuit was filed in San Francisco on Wednesday March, 5, 2003.

Alternative programs are programs generated through parent waivers granted specifically to give parents choice on how their children acquire English. Federal guidelines for the Reading First program in fact specifically identify students with “limited English proficiency” as those students to be funded by Reading First. “Parents have chosen a program that they believe is best to educate their children, which is a right they have under both Prop. 227 and the No Child Left Behind Act. It is unacceptable and illegal for the state to penalize them for their choice by denying their classrooms access to these monies” stated Maria S. Quezada, California Association for Bilingual Education Executive Director, one of seven education and civil rights groups joining the suit.

Under the current policy, the CDE, with State Board of Education (SBE) approval, has established unlawful policies that prevent schools with even a minimal number of waiver classrooms from applying for and receiving any of the $133 million federal grant currently available in California. The challenged policy is the second version of the requirements issued by CDE. Information posted on CDE’s website last fall explicitly excluded schools with bilingual education programs from the Reading First Program. In January the Board issued a revised policy imposing 1.5 to 2.5 hours of language arts instruction in English every day, effectively eliminating bilingual classes from eligibility. “The expressed purpose of the Reading First program is to help those students needing the most help in learning to read, regardless of which language they are using to do so. The current policy is designed to exclude students needing the most help, clearly violating the very reason for this program. It is an unacceptable way to implement the program and the CDE must stop its discriminatory practices,” said Laurie Olson from Californian’s Together. The Board’s requirements will exclude about 160,000 of the poorest students in California from the program.

Part of the No Child Left Behind act (NCLB), Reading First is a $900 million federal grant program targeted at improving reading for K-3rd grade students nation wide. States apply for grants and are awarded monies to implement the program at high need schools—usually poor and underserved schools—through a competitive sub-grant program among eligible school districts. California was awarded $133 million dollars for FY 2002 and is expected to receive an additional $871 million over the next 7 years. The federal government does not impose restrictive eligibility requirements for classrooms offering alternative programs.

The lawsuit charges the CDE with illegally imposing eligibility requirements without appropriate public notice and comment, in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act; and violating NCLB by excluding LEP students from participating in federally assisted education programs. The suit asks the court to stop the use of the requirements until the SBE goes through the normal rule-making process which requires that regulations be published, commented upon and approved prior to going into effect. The suit also charges that the requirements, as currently enacted, violate numerous state and federal civil rights laws.

“This policy is outrageous. It ignores the wishes of parents, the expertise of educators and it was issued without notice to the public as required by state law,” said Deborah Escobedo of Multi-cultural, Education, Training and Advocacy (META), one of plaintiffs’ attorneys. Attorneys filing the law suit on behalf of the coalition are certain the current policies are in violation of this and other of state and federal civil rights laws.

“It appears that the SBE and CDE have established requirements for eligibility that have nothing to do with the intent of the program and are more concerned with punishing parents for exercising their right to choose bilingual programs for the education of their children,” said Jack Daniel from California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA), one of the attorneys for the petitioners. “At a time of devastating budget constraints, it is shameful that the CDE would blatantly deny children, who attend the poorest schools and who are obviously in most need of these programs, such critical funding and services. The law is designed to prevent this from happening and we are confident the court will agree with our petition and require the CDE to concede to our demands,” concluded Escobedo.

Parents for Unity, a parents advocacy group in Los Angeles County, has also joined the suit arguing the CDE is denying their children’s teachers training and materials that could help their students improve their academic performance.

“The teachers tell us our children need to improve their reading. NCLB is supposed to help our students not fall further behind, but when we ask about Reading First funds the schools tell us our sons’ and daughters’ classrooms can’t participate in this program because our children are learning English through bilingual education. It isn’t right,” said Gabriel Medel, spokesperson for Parents for Unity. Under voter initiative Proposition 227, students can be placed in bilingual classes only at the request of their parents and after the school determines that a bilingual classroom is the best educational alternative for the child. .In fact, parents are finding that their right to select the type of program they feel will best help their children learn English, granted through Prop. 227, is being undermined through the CDE’s practices. “The State Board of Education needs to tell the CDE to stop denying our children the federal money that is supposed to help them, before they fall further behind.” Medel concluded.

The coalition filing the suit includes a diverse group of parent, civil, and student rights groups from throughout the state, including: the California Association for Bilingual Education, Californians Together, Parents for Unity, Mujeres Unidas y Activas, Comite Pro Educacion, Excellence and Justice in Education, Frente Indigena Oaxaqueño Bi-nacional, California Latino Civil Rights Network and several individual parents and teachers. In addition to META, petitioners are represented by the Fresno, San Francisco, and Santa Barbara offices of CRLA, Youth Law Center, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, and Public Interest Law Firm.

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