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Schools Need U.S. Guidance on Civil Rights, Panel Says

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The Department of Education's civil rights enforcement doesn't offer schools the models and guidance they need to best teach limited-English-proficient students, a report from an independent federal panel says.

While the department's office for civil rights adequately enforces the laws guaranteeing LEP students equal educational opportunities, it fails to give specific and research-proven remedies explaining how to serve students with poor English skills, according to a 232-page report the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights released last week.

The issue "has become one of the most important civil rights issues facing the United States in the 1990s," says the report by the bipartisan panel, whose eight members are appointed by Congress and the president. "The urgency of assuring this growing minority of American children that they have equal access to the nation's educational system likely will continue unabated into the next century."

The commission recommends a national strategy based on five principles:

  • Encouraging parent involvement;
  • Using "neutral and nondiscriminatory" assessments to determine LEP students' needs and abilities;
  • Grouping students of differing language skills "in regular classes to the greatest extent possible" and adjusting their placements regularly;
  • Dedicating equal shares of money, teachers, and facilities to LEP students; and
  • Offering "equal access to all subjects, activities, and career opportunities."

Assessing Federal Role

The five-pronged approach complies with the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark 1974 Lau v. Nichols decision, which said districts must address the language deficiencies of LEP students, whether by providing English-language instruction or teaching them in their native languages. The commission's principles also conform with standard education practice, the report says.

The Education Department's office for civil rights is reviewing the report, but officials there declined comment on it last week. "It's a very large report," said Rodger Murphey, the office's spokesman. "I think it's going to be weeks before we're able to respond."

One bilingual education advocate, however, said that while the report highlights the need for expanded enforcement, it may be too critical of current efforts.

"It makes the case that the problem is going to grow unless the federal government acts," said James J. Lyons, the executive director of the National Association for Bilingual Education, based in Washington. "Given [the OCR's] budget, they're doing a very good job."

The agency could have more money next fiscal year if the Clinton administration has its way. Vice President Al Gore promised last week that President Clinton would propose "the largest single increase in the enforcement of our civil rights laws in nearly two decades" when he sends Congress his spending plan for fiscal 1999.

The OCR has a $61.5 million budget for fiscal 1998, a $6.6 million, or 12 percent, increase from the previous year. Mr. Gore did not say exactly how much the president would propose for the OCR in his 1999 budget, which is due to be released Feb. 2.

With or without extra money, the OCR should create new policies and revise existing guidance on educating LEP students, the Civil Rights Commission's report says.

The office needs to clarify how districts should address a variety of issues, from standardized testing to ability grouping to special education placements, the report concludes.

Need for Specifics

The OCR also should offer detailed criticisms and specific solutions when it issues findings of discrimination to districts, according to the commission.

The "OCR's Lau policy documents and written communications with school districts, such as letters of finding, appear to rely heavily on such legal terms of art as 'effective participation' and 'meaningful access' without providing practical meaning for these terms through examples, specific criteria, or further explication or elaboration," the report says.

While that may be true, one weakness of the commission's report is that it is sometimes vague, Mr. Lyons said. For example, the report calls for "neutral and nondiscriminatory" assessment, but never explains how to select such tests.

"It's kind of ironic because they say the office for civil rights is not being explicit in its guidelines," Mr. Lyons said.

The report on LEP enforcement is the third volume in a series by the panel on the OCR. The first reviewed the agency's history and oversight of general issues, and the second addressed the office's enforcement of special education laws. No further reports are planned, according to Charles R. Rivera, a commission spokesman.

The new report is free from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Publications Office, 624 9th St. N.W., Room 600, Washington, DC 20425.

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