A Civil Right: Appropriate Screening for Special Education

By Mary Ann Zehr — May 01, 2007 2 min read
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It’s a tricky matter for educators to determine if an English-language learner has only a language issue that affects learning--or a disability. In last week’s Education Week, I wrote about Missouri’s efforts to help educators improve how they evaluate English-language learners for special education, an area where Missouri has a problem with underrepresentation. Ten percent of English-language learners nationwide receive special education, compared with 13 percent of all children, according to data from the 2004-2005 school year collected by the Office for Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education.

I came across a document in my reporting that I thought could serve as a checklist for schools on whether they’re paying sufficient attention to this issue. It’s an agreement that the Florence Unified School District in Arizona signed with the Office for Civil Rights on March 22 that includes several pages of procedures for how the district will evaluate--and re-evaluate--its English-language learners for special education.

After someone filed a complaint with the Office for Civil Rights claiming the school district had an overrepresentation of English-language learners in special education, school district officials agreed to voluntarily work with that office without an investigation. (See March 29 local news account.) Florence Unified officials declined to comment on whether the procedures represented a big change in their practices.

I asked Catherine Collier, who runs Crosscultural Developmental Education Services and has worked to help school districts comply with the Office for Civil Rights on this issue, to read the document and tell me if the procedures it spells out are on target.

“Yes, if districts followed all these they would be in good shape in terms of compliance, and if they really implemented all of these, ELL students would be in good shape academically,” she wrote in an e-mail message. “HOWEVER,” she added in capital letters, “there are all sorts of ways districts may ‘comply’ but really just do superficial adjustments.” She indicated that her work is about helping school districts to genuinely serve ELLs well.

Ms. Collier also quipped in her e-mail that the agreement the Office for Civil Rights made with Florence schools “shows that OCR is not entirely hiding out under the current administration.”

Readers: Do you think that the Office for Civil Rights has been “hiding out” during the Bush administration?

A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.