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Voicing Concern for English-Learners in Debate Over NCLB

By Mary Ann Zehr — April 03, 2007 5 min read
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Peter Zamora—lawyer, former high school teacher, and energetic advocate for the needs of English-language learners—can trace his concern for such students to time spent in a California high school.

Over a three-year stint teaching English, before he quit to go to law school, he chafed at what he describes as a “rigid tracking system” that left Latino and African-American students behind.

“All these issues of class and race and policy hang together,” said Mr. Zamora, Washington counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. While English-language learners may need to receive different kinds of instruction from that given other students, it shouldn’t be “differently paced in terms of academic content,” he said.

At 33, and only four years out of Georgetown University Law Center, Mr. Zamora is now putting that experience—and his own considerable diplomatic skills—to use as co-chairman of a diverse coalition of advocacy groups pressing the concerns of English-learners as Congress considers reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act.

Lawyer Peter Zamora brings his experience as a former high school teacher to his work as an advocate for English-language learners during the process of renewing the No Child Left Behind Act.

Testifying on behalf of the Hispanic Education Coalition at a March 23 congressional hearing, he spoke out for better assessments for English-learners, more technical assistance for the states on testing issues, and the importance of fully including English-learners in NCLB’s accountability system.

Melissa Lazarín, the associate director for education policy for the National Council of La Raza, sees Mr. Zamora as the ideal person to help lead the coalition of 25 Hispanic-advocacy groups, education organizations, and unions, which sometimes have competing agendas and priorities.

“He’s really great at ensuring everybody has a voice in the process—and very easy to work with,” said Ms. Lazarín, who heads a committee that since last summer has been hammering out recommendations on behalf of the coalition for how the federal law should be reauthorized.

Mr. Zamora’s classroom experience with disadvantaged students is one of his strengths as a policymaker, said Raul Gonzalez, the legislative director for La Raza and a friend of Mr. Zamora’s. Few people working as congressional staff members or for Washington-based advocacy groups have been classroom teachers, Mr. Gonzalez said.

“Being able to marry federal policy with what happens on the ground with a civil rights perspective makes him a good advocate,” Mr. Gonzalez said. “And you won’t find many people who are better at it than he is.”

Diplomacy Needed

Mr. Zamora’s diplomatic skills were tested in the process of coming up with testimony that could be supported by the diverse coalition concerned about some of the highly charged issues surrounding how to reauthorize the federal education law to benefit English-language learners.

He also recently waded into a dispute between the federal government and Virginia school districts over how to include English-learners in testing—taking the side of the federal Education Department.

In addition to working as Washington counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Peter Zamora co-chairs a coalition of groups on Hispanic education issues.

Members of the Fairfax County, Va., school board currently are resisting a mandate by the Education Department to change how the district is testing some English-language learners this school year. The federal government has warned the 164,000-student district that it could lose $17 million in federal funds if it follows through on the threat. (“Virginia Backs Down on ELL Student Tests,” Feb. 28, 2007.)

On behalf of MALDEF and the Washington-based La Raza, Mr. Zamora sent a letter to members of the Fairfax board urging them not to resist. He said in an interview that MALDEF and other civil rights groups feel that the federal education law shouldn’t provide more flexibility for school districts to exclude English-learners in testing. Their reasoning: In the past, such flexibility meant that districts failed to be serious about meeting the needs of those students.

But district Superintendent Jack D. Dale said in a phone interview last week that giving the state’s regular reading test to English-learners at the lowest levels of proficiency in English isn’t “educationally sound.”

“We question the validity of giving a reading test to a child in a language they don’t fully understand yet,” he said. “We don’t think you get valid results.”

This issue is ticklish even within the Hispanic Education Coalition.

Four members of Virginia’s congressional delegation—including Sens. John W. Warner, a Republican, and Jim Webb, a Democrat—have introduced bills that would give districts a one-year grace period to comply with the testing requirement. (“Bills Would Ease NCLB Rules on English-Language Learners,” March 28, 2007.)

Some coalition members, including MALDEF and La Raza, oppose that measure. But the National Education Association, which also is a member of the coalition, supports the bill, according to Joel Packer, the union’s director of education policy and practice.

“We are supporting our Virginia [NEA] affiliate that believes there needs to be additional flexibility for this year, and the other members of the Hispanic Education Coalition have a different view on that piece,” Mr. Packer explained last week.

Still, members of the coalition remain united on some fundamental issues involving the NCLB law and English-learners. Mr. Packer noted that the NEA agrees with the main points of Mr. Zamora’s recent testimony, such as that the current assessments used for English-learners “are not valid and appropriate,” and must be improved.

Diverse Experience

Mr. Zamora’s ease in navigating such issues appears to reflect his life experience.

While he works for an organization with “Mexican American” in its name, he is not of Mexican descent—Zamora is a Basque name. He’s fluent in Spanish because while growing up, he spent summers and his 4th grade year in Mexico. His parents, who live in Houston, are academics with an interest in Mexico, his father in Mexican law and his mother in Latin American art and literature.

The lawyer said he’s comfortable moving between cultures, noting that he grew up attending “diverse integrated” public schools in Houston.

Besides teaching, Mr. Zamora has been a consultant for the District of Columbia public schools, an education lawyer for the Washington-based law firm Brustein & Manasevit, and a legal intern in the Education Department’s office for civil rights.

But he traces his motivation to advocate policies that help English-learners in part to his time at Hayward High School in Hayward, Calif., where he taught in the late 1990s.

His college-preparatory classes, he said, were made up mostly of Anglos, and his basic-skills classes were composed mostly of Latinos and African-Americans, which he believes was largely because of the students’ economic status.

“Many of these decisions were made early in a child’s school career, and the basic-skills kids got a slowed-down curriculum,” Mr. Zamora said. “I taught 12th grade. I saw students at the end of their careers and could see the gulf between the basic-skills and the college-prep students.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 04, 2007 edition of Education Week as Voicing Concern for English-Learners in Debate Over NCLB

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