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Lawsuit should be a wake-up call

The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund recently filed a federal lawsuit against the Texas Education Agency, alleging that Hispanic English language learners’ civil rights are being violated by not receiving adequate instruction in secondary schools statewide.

The problems it cites include ill-prepared teachers and insufficient monitoring of student progress.

While the merits of the lawsuit will be determined by a court, the suit rightly focuses attention on the state’s long-standing failure to properly educate this underserved group of students who do not speak English, though many were born in the U.S. to immigrant families.

In a state where almost 20 percent of its student population are English language learners, or ELLs, it is unacceptable to have such dismal success rates. For example, in 2012-13, more than 70 percent of the state’s sixth-graders passed the STAAR reading and math exams. However, only 37 percent of English language learners passed the sixth-grade reading exams and only 53 percent passed the math exam.

MALDEF recommends that the TEA redesign its English as a second language education teacher certification programs, as well as more closely monitor to ensure districts comply with state and federal law. It also suggests that the agency revise its recommended and approved secondary language program process and examinations.

While the suit singles out the Southwest and North East school districts in San Antonio, it also asserts that similar problems exist statewide.

Today, Texas public schools are struggling to keep up with the rapid growth of ELL students.

In the 2004-2005 school year, more than 4.4 million students were enrolled in Texas schools; of that, 684,000, or 15.5 percent, were English language learners, according to the TEA. Those numbers have surged: In the 2012-13 school year, 863,536, or 17.1 percent of all Texas public school students, were ELL students. In simple terms, today, more than one out of every six public school students in Texas has limited English language skills, and these are the students the suit sets out to protect.

The 27-page complaint filed recently on behalf of the League of United Latin American Citizens is part of an ongoing legal battle over the TEA’s implementation of the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974. The act stipulates that no state can deny students educational opportunities by failing to provide students with the adequate tools to learn English in instructional programs.

The TEA has had decades to create adequate curriculum and monitoring programs to better serve students with limited English skills. Change is needed now.

As the complaint alleges, language programs for secondary — middle and high school — students are failing miserably. State programs are under-resourced and poorly implemented, and the state’s “Supplemental” Certification of ESL teachers is insufficient because the certification program does not ensure that the teachers are qualified or well-prepared to serve their students.

The result of the state’s weak monitoring is that English language learners fail to learn English and perform poorly in the classroom in all subjects. The TEA’s latest figures show the English language learning student dropout rate is about four times that of the statewide average of 6 percent of high school students.

It’s clear that the TEA is failing these children.

Schools can do better. But the TEA has to give the districts the tools they need.

When education leaders do not place emphasis on student learning for any population, everyone suffers. The state and the TEA need to do better by these kids. Federal and state law demand it.

— Austin American-Statesman